Crystal Mason, resident of the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, has been sentenced to five years in prison for casting an illegal ballot in the 2016 election.
An election worker assisted Mason in filling out a good-faith provisional ballot after Mason discovered her name was not on the voter roll.
In the state of Texas, voting illegally is a second-degree felony charge with a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. Mason’s case was prosecuted in Tarrant County, which saw a Mexican national sentenced to eight years in prison over illegal voting charges last year.
Although this is a fairly clear-cut case — even if Mason didn’t know she wasn’t allowed to vote, she still signed the affidavit stating she was not a convicted felon, which is patently false — it sheds light on a systemic issue faced by millions in the U.S.; systematic voter disenfranchisement.
What is voter disenfranchisement?
Disenfranchisement is the process by which an individual’s or a group’s right to vote is revoked or actively inhibited.
What this means is that there are laws throughout state in the U.S. that systematically prevent and/or strip away people’s right to vote depending on the circumstances.
These laws vary by state, but one of the most common specifically targets those convicted of a felony charge.
The only states to guarantee the right to vote to felons are Maine and Vermont, with every other state having implemented some degree of law that prevents felons from casting ballots. Only 14 states provide for the automatic restoration of felons’ voting rights upon release from prison.
Texas has a strong history of voter disenfranchisement, having implemented poll taxes and the “white primary” during the period following Reconstruction.
Furthermore, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Texas lawmakers had in fact discriminated against minority voters by enacting a strict voter ID law in 2011, opening up the possibility that Texas could be placed under federal election oversight.
As of 2016, the state of Texas had 495,928 voters disenfranchised as a result of a felony convictions, which is 2.45% of the voting population.
But the problem extends well beyond the Lone Star State.
Florida, the state with the highest rates of felon voter disenfranchisement, has revoked the right to vote for 10.43% of its voting-age population.
In the U.S. overall, rates of felon disenfranchisement have risen almost exponentially since the late 1990’s.
And the exclusion of felon voters is not the only form of disenfranchisement.
After the Supreme Court voted to invalidate Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County v. Holder case, allowing primarily Southern states to change their election laws without federal approval, laws inhibiting the right to vote began popping up like spring daisies.
These laws range from requiring Voter ID, to limiting mail-in ballots, to reducing or even eliminating the early voting period. To see an interactive map of states with new voting restrictions as of the last election, click here.
By and large, these types of laws are implemented in states where the conservative party is experiencing a decline in their electoral base, meaning that these laws are a clear attempt to maintain power through racial and socioeconomic targeting.
This can be seen in the statistic that one in 13 voting-age African Americans is disenfranchised, or 7.4% — that’s more than four times the rate for non-African Americans.
Six of the 14 states that implemented new restrictive voting laws in 2016 were those previously covered by Section 5.
As of 2016, approximately 6.1 million people in the U.S. have been disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, an increase of 250,000 people since 2010.
All of this data shows that the conservative forces in our local, state, and federal governments are actively working to eliminate or suppress the votes of minority groups and those individuals whose personal politics are at odds with the conservative agenda.
Whether Mason may or may not be guilty of intentionally casting an illegal ballot is really beside the point.
What matters is that an American citizen is receiving five years of prison time for casting a ballot in good faith, and that her imprisonment will further impact her ability to vote in the future.
What matters is that the United States — ‘the land of the free’ — is still one of the most restrictive nations in the world when it comes to the right to vote for convicted criminals.
And, more than anything, what matters is that our courts have so far done nothing but aid and abet the conservative agenda to further restrict voting.