Attorneys for Crystal Mason, the Texas woman who was sentenced to five years in prison for unknowingly casting an illegal provisional ballot that was not counted in the November 2016 election, implored the state’s highest criminal court to overturn her conviction, arguing that it runs contra to state and federal voting laws.
In a 52-page brief submitted to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday, Mason’s attorneys contended that a lower appeals court misinterpreted the mens rea, or state of mind, requirement in the state’s illegal voting law in upholding her conviction.
Mason was on supervised release for felony tax fraud when she tried to cast her vote at the Baptist Tabernacle Church in Tarrant County, a polling site where she had voted multiple times prior to her initial incarceration. She gave her ID to the poll worker, but was told that her name wasn’t on the voter registration roll. At the advice of the poll worker, Mason filled out a provisional ballot.
She was unaware, however, that Texas law forbids convicted felons from voting until they have “fully discharged their sentence, including any term of incarceration, parole, or supervision.”
A 2018 bench trial that lasted only one day primarily focused on the fine print that appeared on the back of the provisional ballot that Mason signed, which she said she did not thoroughly read. The passage stated: “I am a resident of this political subdivision, have not been finally convicted of a felony or if a felon, I have completed all of my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.”
Holding that it was her responsibility to know the law, Mason was convicted under Texas’s illegal voting statute and sentenced to five years in prison. That law states that it’s a criminal offense for ineligible people to vote in elections, but only if “the person knows the person is not eligible to vote.”
Despite a dearth of evidence that Mason was aware she could not vote, a majority of judges on the appellate panel nevertheless affirmed Mason’s conviction, reasoning that “the fact that she did not know she was legally ineligible to vote was irrelevant to her prosecution.”
According to Mason’s attorneys, the appellate court’s ruling “impermissibly nullifie[d]” the express requirement that she knew she was ineligible to vote when she cast her ballot.
“Voting is not criminal conduct. Rather, it is the circumstances of the individual — eligible or ineligible — that may render the conduct unlawful under Section 64.012(a)(1). Accordingly, a defendant like Ms. Mason who does not know that she is ineligible to vote does not have the guilty state of mind the statute’s language and purpose requires,” the brief stated. “In other words, the state had to demonstrate that Ms. Mason not only knew that she was on federal supervised release (which is undisputed), but that she also knew that being on federal supervised release rendered her ineligible to vote — i.e., that she voted despite being subjectively aware she was ineligible to do so.”
Mason’s attorneys also argued that the lower courts’ interpretations of the state’s illegal voting statute runs counter to the Help Americans Vote Act (HAVA), and is therefore pre-empted by the federal statute.
“HAVA permits individuals who believe in good faith that they are eligible to vote to cast a provisional ballot, even when their belief turns out to be incorrect,” the brief stated. “The court of appeals interpreted Section 64.012(a)(1) in a manner that directly conflicts with federal law and could subject potentially tens of thousands of Texans in every federal election to felony prosecution. This Court should correct the court of appeals’ misinterpretation and clarify that Section 64.012(a)(1) does not criminalize submitting a provisional ballot based on a good faith but mistaken belief of voter eligibility.”
Read the full brief below.
[image via YouTube screengrab]
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