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Laws disenfranchising voters need to be changed

On Nov. 8, 2016, Crystal Mason, an African-American mother of three, went to the polls and voted. Hers was a provisional ballot, as she hadn’t been to her polling place near Fort Worth, Texas, for several years. She had been in prison for tax-related offenses and was under federal supervised release. “I went to the local church, where I went before I went to prison, to vote,” she said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. “When they looked on the roster, they realized my name wasn’t there … when I got ready to walk away, they stopped me and they told me, ‘Hey, you can fill out a provisional ballot. … If you’re at the right location, it will count. And if you’re not, it won’t.’ I didn’t see any harm with that. So the lady sat me down and helped me out with it.”

What Crystal didn’t know was that in Texas, you can’t vote while on parole or supervised release. What happened next is hard to believe. She was charged with voter fraud, convicted and sentenced to five years. On top of that shock, a federal judge ruled that because she violated the terms of her supervised release – for voting in Texas – she must spend an additional 10 months in federal prison on top of the five-year state sentence she is appealing.

“There is absolutely no reason Crystal should have been prosecuted,” Kim Cole, Mason’s attorney, said on “Democracy Now!” “She was not aware that she was not eligible to vote.” Provisional ballots exist precisely for people who are uncertain about their eligibility to vote. They allow a person to vote until election officials can check, after Election Day, whether the voter was eligible or not. If not, the ballot is not counted. It’s that simple.

Texas state law is clear: A person can only be convicted of voter fraud if he or she intended to commit the offense. Crystal Mason clearly did not. Cole stressed “her supervised release officer testified on the stand that he did not tell Crystal that she was not eligible to vote. Tarrant County is very proud to be the largest urban red county in the country. And they (local GOP) want to keep it that way.”

According to The Sentencing Project, felony disenfranchisement prevents over 6 million people from voting in the U.S. State laws vary. In Vermont and Maine, convicted felons can vote from jail. Maryland, Connecticut and Rhode Island permit people on probation and/or parole to vote.

Compare Crystal Mason’s case with that of Terri Lynn Rote, a white woman in Iowa who was convicted of voter fraud for trying to vote for President Donald Trump twice. Rote was sentenced to two years’ probation and fined $750. Felony disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts communities of color, preventing one in 13 African-Americans in the U.S. from voting, vs. one in 56 for non-African-Americans. Latinos also are disproportionately impacted. …

“There’s a growing movement to reconsider these policies,” Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, said on “Democracy Now!” In Florida, over 1.4 million convicted felons have been permanently stripped of their right to vote. Donald Trump won Florida by just 112,000 votes, a mere 1.2 percent of the total vote. Given African-Americans vote Democratic by large margins, it is no surprise Republicans support laws that increasingly restrict African-American turnout. Voters in Florida can change the law this year with a ballot initiative, Amendment 4, driven by “returning citizens,” as the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition calls formerly incarcerated people. Under it, formerly incarcerated felons, excluding those who committed murder or a felony sexual assault, will regain the right to vote.

Crystal Mason is appealing her voter fraud conviction, for which she got five years in prison. She must turn herself in to federal authorities by Sept. 13 to begin her 10-month sentence, after which she will resume 26 months of supervised release. When asked if she planned to vote again, she replied: “I do. I do. And that’s what I’m encouraging my kids, to get out there so we can make a difference right now.”