Originally reported by https://www.keranews.org/
KERA | By Emily Wolf | Fort Worth Report
Published April 18, 2023 at 5:46 PM CDT

PHOTO CREDITS: Crystal Mason speaks with family and supporters after oral arguments at the Tarrant County Courthouse.

A three-judge panel heard arguments for and against the acquittal Crystal Mason on felony voter fraud charges Tuesday, as tension around elections in Tarrant County ratchets up ahead of the May 6 election.

A Tarrant County resident, Mason was sentenced to five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election. She was on supervised release for a federal conviction and thus 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.

This is Mason’s second time to appeal her conviction in front of the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth. Previously, the court upheld her conviction, but was forced to reconsider its ruling by the state’s highest appeals court.

Both Tarrant County residents and national activists gathered outside of the courtroom. Among them was the president of the Transformative Justice Coalition, Barbara Arnwine, who said she flew in from Washington D.C. to support Mason, who attended the hearing.

“Crystal’s case is being used to bludgeon Black voters,” Arnwine said.

Rather than prosecuting cases like Mason’s – where someone voted not knowing they were ineligible – Arnwine said officials should instead be protecting people’s right to vote and putting out clear information.

“She symbolizes so much we need to stand against,” Haynes said. “It’s not just the state that’s watching, it’s the nation that’s watching.”

Attorneys representing Mason and attorneys from the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office each had three minutes to make oral arguments in front of judges J. Wade Birdwell, Elizabeth Kerr and Dabney Bassel. Recording devices were not allowed, and court staff ordered all electronic devices be shut off before entering the courtroom.

The panel of judges grilled both the defense and prosecution on the intricacies of their arguments, and ended the hearing once rebuttals concluded.

The key question before the Second Court of Appeals is whether Mason voted while actively knowing she was not eligible to vote. An amendment to the voter fraud statute Mason was prosecuted under, passed in 2021, specifies a person can’t be convicted of voting illegally solely based on the fact that they signed a provisional ballot affidavit. Instead, prosecutors must show other evidence to corroborate that the person knew they were voting illegally.

Among the arguments from the Tarrant County DA’s Office is that Mason was sent notice in the mail that she was removed from the voter rolls, and that should act as corroborating evidence that she knew she was ineligible to vote. Bassell asked whether the prosecution had any proof that Mason received or read the notice, and the prosecution said it did not.

Among the arguments made by the defense is that there’s no proof that Mason ever knew she was ineligible before casting her provisional ballot. Testimony from the previous trial only said that she glanced over the ballot for several seconds, and didn’t specify whether Mason specifically read and understood the portion of the ballot pertaining to felony convictions and voting.

Birdwell also told both the defense and the prosecution that in his mind, the language currently used on Texas provisional ballots is the most important piece of evidence in Mason’s case. There’s nothing in the provisional ballot language that explicitly states she is ineligible to vote, he said. Birdwell said the secretary of state may need to update the language used on ballots.

Mason’s hearing came in the same week that Tarrant County elections administrator Heider Garcia resigned from his post, citing irreconcilable differences with County Judge Tim O’Hare over how to run fair and transparent elections. Earlier this year, O’Hare created an Election Integrity Task Force alongside District Attorney Phil Sorrells and Sheriff Bill Waybourn without consulting Garcia — despite state audits that found Tarrant County’s elections were quality and transparent.

O’Hare also made comments earlier in the week about low voter turnout in the county, which he said could help conservatives win in the municipal elections.

Daryl Jones, an attorney with the Transformative Justice Coalition, said there are millions of people across the U.S. who are afraid to vote after a felony conviction, despite having their rights restored, for fear of being prosecuted in a manner similar to Mason.

“You always have intimidation for returning citizens,” he said. “If they are not certain as to whether or not they can vote, this is one of those pieces that they put out there to say ‘Don’t do it,’ to stop them, to suppress them from even thinking about it. So it has a chilling effect, even for those that have the right to vote.”

Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at emily.wolf@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. 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.

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