The same month Tarrant County officials announced the creation of an election integrity task force, a group of 14 bipartisan prosecutors threw their weight behind an effort to acquit the woman at the center of a high-profile voting fraud conviction in the county.
Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County resident, was sentenced to five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election. Mason, who was on supervised release for a federal felony, was ineligible to vote, and while her ballot was never counted, Tarrant County prosecutors charged her with illegal voting. Mason has maintained that she did not know she was ineligible and her case has gained national attention among the media and civil liberty advocates.
Now, Mason is appealing her conviction for a second time in front of the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth, after the state’s highest appeals court told those judges to reconsider their previous decision.
Their decision did not take into account whether Mason knew she was ineligible.
A bipartisan group of former state and federal prosecutors, organized by the States United Democracy Center, filed an amicus brief Feb. 14 in support of Mason’s appeal. Among the signees is Sarah Saldaña, former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas and former director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I had this visceral reaction to the injustice manifested in the decision, No. 1, to prosecute, but also the ultimate conviction,” Saldaña said. “It’s obvious that this whole issue of intent was not charged in the jury charge. … That to me was very offensive, particularly as a former prosecutor, and particularly as the principal decision maker in North Texas, at the time when I was U.S. attorney.”
Mason’s intent is a key aspect of the amicus brief’s argument. The signees call her prosecution “outside the bounds of any reasonable exercise of prosecutorial power,” and point to wording in Texas’ illegal voting statute that requires voters have “actual knowledge” that they were committing a crime by voting.
Without enforcing the actual knowledge requirement, the signees argue Texas voters will be afraid to vote at all for fear of accidentally running afoul of voting laws.
“Ms. Mason’s prosecution sends the troubling message that casting a provisional ballot carries a serious risk, with a consequent chilling effect on the use of provisional ballots,” the prosecutors wrote. “This chill would likely disproportionately impact minority voters, who tend to cast more provisional ballots.”
Research from the MIT Election Data and Science Lab shows jurisdictions with a higher population of young and minority voters give out provisional ballots at higher rates.
Former Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson pursued a case against Mason after receiving a phone call from Karl Dietrich, a neighbor of Mason’s who said he saw her vote in 2016. Under the election integrity task force’s watch, calls like Dietrich’s regarding voter fraud are now being treated as a higher priority than even thefts or burglaries, according to Sheriff Bill Waybourn.
“We’re going to pursue these as quickly as possible and go after the truth of the facts,” Waybourn said at a Feb. 8 news conference. “We’re out to find the truth, and if that clears people, we want to clear them as well as anything else.”
Tarrant County has been held up as an example of a well-run, secure elections system by state elections officials. An audit of the 2020 general election, ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott, revealed only a small amount of voter fraud that would not have affected the results of the election in Tarrant County, auditors said.
“It looks like a solution looking for a problem,” Saldaña said. “I mean, where is the issue?”
In Tarrant County, voter fraud cases are not treated equal
Other instances of voter fraud have carried less severe consequences for Tarrant County residents. In 2018, former Republican Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Russ Casey pleaded guilty to using fake signatures to secure his place on an election ballot, and received five years probation. In 2015, resident Hazel Brionne Woodard pleaded guilty to having her son vote on his father’s behalf and was sentenced to two years of probation.
County Judge Tim O’Hare pointed to those cases as examples of fraud in the county, and said it’s irrelevant whether instances of fraud are widespread.
“It’s like a bank robbery,” O’Hare said at the Feb. 8 news conference. “Is it OK to have one bank robbery or two? … We know there have been issues in the past.”
A better use of county resources than the election integrity task force, Saldaña argued, would be educational materials on voting eligibility. The restoration of rights process for those convicted of a felony varies from state to state, and information can be hard to find.
“We’ve got to remember what the justice system is all about,” Saldaña said. “That should be our guiding light. Does this meet the ends of justice and does it make an impact? I will very strongly remind everyone involved in this case and future decisions that we’ve got to keep our eye on the ball and it has to all meet the ends of justice. Hopefully, this miscarriage of justice will be corrected.”
Statewide, efforts by Republican lawmakers to make illegal voting a felony again are gaining steam. It’s currently a misdemeanor, after lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1 in 2021; the bill, among other things, lowered the penalty for illegal voting conduct.
Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, filed House Bill 397 to reverse that change. Sen. Bryan Hughes, who represents East Texas, filed a companion bill in the Senate, which was referred to the state affairs committee for review Feb. 15.
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.