Crystal Mason on a ruling that could change her life: 'I know this is not over’ | The fight to vote

3 months ago

Crystal Mason on a ruling that could change her life: 'I know this is not over’ | The fight to vote

The Guardian

Hello Fight to Vote readers,

Every Tuesday night for the last year or so, Crystal Mason has had trouble sleeping.

On Wednesday mornings, the Texas court of criminal appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, usually issues its ruling. And since March of last year, Mason has been waiting for a ruling from the court that could change her life. She’s been appealing a five-year prison sentence for voting a provisional ballot in 2016. Mason was ineligible to vote at the time because she was on federal supervised release – which is like probation – for a tax felony. Texas prohibits anyone from voting while they are serving a criminal sentence, but she says – and probation officials have confirmed – that no one told her she was ineligible.

Yesterday, Mason, who is 47-years-old and raised seven kids and has six grandchildren, got the phone call she’s been anxiously waiting for. In an 8-1 ruling, the court told a lower court it had to reconsider the case to determine whether Mason actually knew she was ineligible to vote when she cast a ballot. It was a partial, but far from final, victory for Mason.

I’ve been following Mason’s case for the last few years, and on Wednesday, I spoke with Mason hours after the ruling. We talked about about her case and why she thinks it’s struck a nerve across the US.

How are you feeling, and what was it like to get the news this morning?

I was at work and Kim [Mason’s lawyer] called me … She said the decision came in. I just started to panic, I started to sweat, like nervous, like, ‘What’s going on, Kim?’

She let me know that it’s going back to the second court of appeals and they have to prove intent. Like where I really knew that I was committing a crime. And I feel like that’s a good step. That’s a good step right there.

If you go off facts and facts alone, Sam, you know that the supervised release officer testified on the stand and said no one told me [I couldn’t vote] in the supervised release office. Then I received paperwork in my judgment and commitment, and in black and white, it’s not there. And then you can see it in my supervised release information, it was not there.

I think that the criminal court of appeals asked them something very important. That needs to be … that’s the whole case, right there. I’m very happy that they did that. But I know this is not over.

You were never told, never had any idea, being on federal supervised release, that you couldn’t vote in Texas?

Absolutely not. I was never told that. I never had any paperwork stating that. I was going by all my conditions of being on supervised release, and I did not see that at all. I do know that as a felon you still have the right to vote. I had no idea that being on supervised release took that right away from me.

There’s no way … I’m on track. I got a good job. I’m making decent money. I’m in school. I’m back with my family, my kids, my grandbabies. You wouldn’t have ever taken a chance, if there was even a grey line, of me thinking that I was ineligible to vote. I just wouldn’t have did that. You just don’t.

This has been a disaster for me. The jobs that I have lost. Me going back to prison [Mason was ordered to return to federal prison for 10 months for being convicted of a crime while on supervised release], leaving my kids. Me fighting to try to maintain everything. It’s been a disaster for me.

There have been very significant consequences for you and your family. Can you walk me through what some of those consequences have been?

I had to go back to prison. I had three jobs taken away from me. I fought to maintain my house and everything. And I am the provider for my family.

You were not a political person in 2016.

Not at all.

And since then you’ve become political. Can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve been doing and what made you get more politically active?

If you go back to my first interviews, you’ll hear me say ‘I’ll never vote again. I’ll never vote again.’ And that was it. And I realized that’s exactly what they wanted me to do. That’s exactly what they wanted me to say.

I realized that no, I have to let everybody know that what I had done was an innocent mistake. And I am being prosecuted for an innocent mistake and that is not right. And then I had to let everybody know how important it is to go vote. Because the people that did this to me – the judge, the DA, the prosecutor – they’re all elected officials. So this is the reason why it’s so important that we get out and vote.

And what has your group, Crystal Mason ‘The Fight’, been focused on? Has it been teaching people about their rights eligibility? Encouraging them to vote? All of the above?

All of the above. Educating them on the different types of ballot. We’re getting ready to do a town hall. And that’s where we’re asking different candidates running for different positions to come to my venue and speak to the community. And let us know: who you are and what do you plan on doing if you get the seat you’re running for.

I’ve traveled across the country, and almost everywhere I go, people have heard of that woman in Texas who was sentenced to five years in prison for trying to vote. I’m curious why you think your case has resonated so much and caused so much outrage?

I think the people see the wrongness. The people that’s in the court system, the people that’s in a position to do something about it has turned a blind eye on it. I feel that people who hear the story and just really see, they know that I did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong. Nothing at all.

I filled out a provisional ballot. I’m being sentenced for illegally voting and I never voted. I mean that’s wrong right there.

There are some people who have said your case is an example of intimidation. Sending a message to Black people, and people who have felony convictions in their past, that you better be really sure you can vote before you try. Do you see it as intimidation? Have you heard from other people who are not going to vote because they heard about what’s happened to you?

I have heard that. That’s because people are scared. They’re listening to me, and I tell them ‘yep, I’m right here but I’m fighting and it’s very wrong.’ But people don’t want to take a chance.

And yes, I do feel like my case is sending a message to the Black and the brown [people]: ‘If you dare come to the polls, this could happen to you’. So yes, I do feel like it’s sending a message. It is a scare tactic. And that’s not right, that’s not right at all. So that’s the reason I’m out here speaking to people and telling people how important it is to vote.

And actually you voted in the primary, a couple months ago [Mason’s supervised release expired last year, allowing her to vote in Texas]. What was that like for you to go back to the voting booth and cast a ballot when you were eligible?

It was very exciting. I was with my family, and the things that I didn’t know [before], I knew. So once I finished up with my ballot, I automatically went to go help my mother. And of course I got stopped and they said, ‘Oh no, you can’t.’

I told her … I can help her. I had to fill out a form, and they notarized it and everything. I turned around and I went to help my mom and I helped my niece. So I felt real good about being knowledgable about being able to help them through that ballot.

Is there anything you hope people take away from your case? What do you hope people will learn from your case and take away from it.

The importance of voting. Everybody that has something to do with my case are elected officials.