States Are Stepping Up Prosecutions For Voter Fraud. But Who Gets The Harshest Punishment?

Barbara Rodriguez

This story originally appeared at The 19th.

Crystal Mason is waiting for resolution.

On Election Day 2016, at her mother’s urging, the Texas woman went to her local precinct to vote in the presidential election. Mason’s name did not appear on the voter rolls, but a poll worker said she could cast a provisional ballot that would get additional review. The affidavit she signed with her ballot included small print that said it is a felony to vote if a person knows they’re ineligible to cast a ballot.

Months later, officials issued a warrant for Mason’s arrest. It’s when Mason says she learned she was ineligible to vote under Texas law because she was still on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction.

Mason’s ballot was never counted in the 2016 presidential election, but her attempt at civic participation sent her back to prison for several months for violating the terms of her federal supervised release. She left behind her three children and other family under her care. Mason doesn’t understand how anyone could think she would risk that.

“You have to show an intent. What was my intent?” Mason told The 19th. “I did nothing wrong but do something that I thought I had the right to do.”

In 2018, a judge convicted Mason of illegal voting, and she was sentenced to five years in prison. Mason is free on bond as she appeals the conviction, and her legal team is expected to file a new briefing in her case this month.

No comprehensive data exist on charges or punishments in voting-related cases, whether they’re related to attempting to register or vote when someone isn’t allowed to, voting twice or voting under a false name. But a number of high-profile cases lately have involved harsh punishment of women of color, particularly Black women like Mason. They come as some Republicans, led by former President Donald Trump, attempt to spread unfounded fears of widespread voter fraud and scapegoat people of color. Voting rights advocates and experts worry that this focus on voter fraud prosecutions could disproportionately affect marginalized communities.

Carla Laroche, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia who has researched the disenfranchisement of Black women, said the lack of complete data on voter fraud prosecutions doesn’t negate the ways in which narratives get pushed about Black women and women of color when it comes to voting. The end result may discourage their peers from voting.

“The criminalization of Black women is used to push more voter suppression laws,” she said. “On the flip side, it also impacts those who see what Ms. Mason went through and then say, ‘That seems like something I may do — and then I will have to go to prison even though it wasn’t intentional.’ So then de facto disenfranchisement comes into play, and eligible voters don’t vote.”

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a national voting rights organization, said voter suppression has targeted Black and Brown voters irrespective of gender. But she noted that white supremacy has also historically centered a patriarchy that is directly challenged by Black women who sit at the intersection of sexism and racism.

“It’s more about what they represent than the individual,” said Brown. The local and state officials want to make examples out of these cases, she said. “They want the Black face. They want the woman. They want the poor person. There’s a particular narrative that otherizes people.”


The story has been edited for length. Read the full story at The 19th.

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