During the 2016 election cycle that included the presidential ballot, voting rights took center stage as November 8 drew closer. Many contenders who ran on the Republican ticket called for stricter legislation on who could and couldn’t vote as a case-in-point against undocumented immigrants enjoying rights and privileges usually reserved for US citizens only. As many may recall, immigration policy and reform was a pivotal point during debates and interviews, and calling for a closer watch on non-citizens attempting to vote galvanized voters who wanted to see tightened practices for immigrants without legal standing.
On election day, reporters and election watchers hawked polling places, chomping at the bit to break a story about a non-citizen attempting to vote or catch someone in the act of trying to vote twice. All the fervor yielded very little in terms of headlines, and ultimately, the President even disbanded his “voter fraud” commission, as it proved to be a waste of time and resources. However, a few stories made headlines. In one, a woman attempted to cast two ballots for now-President Trump and was stopped in the act. In a more calamitous story, though, a woman from Texas was sentenced to five years in prison for voting when she shouldn’t have because of a prior crime.
Voting rights for convicted felons has long been a sticking point. A state-level law, some states are more lenient with their felons and allow them some voting rights if they’ve made it through their probation cleanly and avoid a life of crime. In others, though, felons are essentially banned from voting for life. On the one hand, this functions as a deterrent to would-be criminals to keep them from breaking their social contract. On the other hand, though, many politicians don’t want felons to vote because of they way they would vote, most notably against increasing funding for police officers and in favor of more relaxed laws on crime. Florida has made recent headlines as activists there are trying to repeal some of the nation’s toughest law against felons voting and
In this specific case, Crystal Mason, a 43 year old Black resident of Texas, cast a ballot on November 8 despite the fact that she was still on probation for a tax fraud felony of which she’d been convicted. Not finding her name on the voter roll, Mason filed a provisional ballot and was subsequently arrested for illegal voting. At the trial, she reiterated time and time again that she was voting in good conscious and did not intend to make a statement or break the law. However, the prosecution produced numerous documents Mason had signed saying she could not vote again until her probation had been served in full. She has been sentenced 5 years for her crime.
Across the US, the punishment for such a crime has come nowhere close for others who were found guilty of voting when they weren’t supposed to. NPR reported that two Nebraskan men struck a deal for $10,000 after they were charged with voting multiple times in local elections. Texas has stepped up its punishment of illegal voting and has used Crystal Mason’s case to make an example for others considering voting when they shouldn’t. However, Mason is appealing the case, and voting rights activists are calling for governments to encourage voting, not scare people out of it even more. Among developed nations, the US ranks one of the lowest in voter turnout, and yet, more and more governments, both federal and state, are trying to make it harder to vote, not easier.