The CMH Events Center on South Jones Street had a forlorn look on a recent drizzly Friday afternoon, its ambitious name a contrast to its modest reality. Nothing caused it to stand out from the other industrial-looking businesses that lined the street, except maybe the small black-and-white “BETO” sign near the curb, referring to Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Houston Republican, for re-election on the Nov. 6 ballot.
I arrived at CMH, located on the other side of I-35 from Morningside Park, to meet with Sherrian McGrady, Rashun Woods, and Angela Barnes, all of whom are family members of Crystal Mason. It had been 15 days since Mason reported to Carswell federal prison in Fort Worth to begin serving a 10-month sentence. Unless she wins her appeal, Mason’s time at Carswell will be followed by a five-year state sentence. Her crime: violating the terms of her supervised release by voting in the 2016 presidential election. She cast a provisional ballot for Hillary Clinton.
Mason’s substantial prison sentence isn’t the only voting-related case in North Texas to have made headlines recently. Rosa Maria Ortega of Grand Prairie, a permanent resident with a green card who has served as a poll worker, was found guilty last year of having cast illegal ballots in the 2012 general election and the 2014 Republican primary runoff. She was fined $5,000 and sentenced to eight years in prison. The mother of four teens, who was 37 at the time she was taken to trial, stands to be deported after serving her time. Like Mason, her case is under appeal.
The door was locked when I arrived at CMH but was immediately opened from the other side by Mason’s 19-year-old daughter, Taylor Hobbs. She directed me through a door to a dimly lit larger room, where there were round tables draped in white tablecloths. A solitary pool table sat in a shadowy corner near a wall hung with black fabric.
The Events Center was started by Mason earlier this year, her cousin Barnes told me, after she lost one job after another because of the publicity surrounding her illegal voting case. Her prosecution drew media attention because it raised questions of racial injustice and whether she had been used as a tool in a voter suppression effort targeting minorities. As Mason’s case made its way through the justice system, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson meted out a very different punishment in another election-related crime. She gave Russ Casey, a male justice of the peace who forged more than 100 signatures on his spring primary petition, five years of probation.
Mason, 43, is black and a Democrat. Both Wilson and Casey are white Republicans. Mason’s family members feel there is no question that racism was at play.
“If you are one color, you’re treated one way, and if you’re another color, you’re treated a different way,” Barnes said.
After losing three jobs in what Barnes called “customer service collections,” Mason sought independence by opening the Events Center and taking cosmetology classes at night. The letters CMH are Mason’s initials, or they used to be. The letters stand for Crystal Mason-Hobbs, the name she is listed under as a federal inmate. She prefers to go by Mason, though, having dropped the Hobbs name after a divorce.
Now that Mason is behind bars, and with the crucial midterm election just days from being resolved, her illegal voting case will probably fade quickly from the headlines. For her family, though, a possible years-long financially draining ordeal awaits if her appeal is denied. It’s scheduled for court the day after the election.
While Mason is incarcerated, family members are keeping her events business going in hopes that rental fees will cover the mortgage payments on her five-bedroom, two-bath brick home in Rendon, south of Fort Worth. Money is needed for other things as well while she is away. Her 63-year-old mother, McGrady, is living in the house and caring for three children who had been under Mason’s care: two of Mason’s grandchildren and her 16-year-old nephew.
Woods, Mason’s brother and a mortgage loan officer, said she spent the final week before reporting to Carswell walking neighborhoods to ask people if they were registered to vote and encouraging them to make their voices heard in the upcoming election. She and her family even hosted a voter suppression seminar at the Events Center with representatives of the NAACP and voter registrars. Albert Roberts, Wilson’s Democratic opponent, was a special guest. During those days of energetic advocacy, Mason was upbeat and positive, her family members said, hopeful that the injustice would be corrected in time.
But as the day drew closer for her to report to federal prison, they said, reality took hold.
As early voting began in different parts of the country this week, allegations of voter suppression arose. The alleged tactics have been aimed at populations that tend to skew Democratic, such as students and minorities.
Some Democrats have billed the contest as “the vote of your lifetime,” and the sentiment may not be an exaggeration. Midterm elections always bring the threat (or promise) of shifts in political power, but if Republicans lose control of Congress, President Donald Trump could be at risk of impeachment. The nation has been deeply divided since Trump’s election, and his administration’s controversial travel ban and hard-line stance on immigration have increased racial tensions.
In North Dakota, thousands of Native Americans on five reservations whose votes could play a key role in determining whether Democrats capture the Senate have been scrambling to obtain state-sanctioned identification to be able to cast ballots. Shortly after Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp was elected in 2012, the state Legislature adopted stricter voter ID laws, including a requirement for a residential street address. Reservation dwellers in rural parts of the state do not have street addresses. They receive mail through P.O. boxes.
Heitkamp is fighting to keep her seat against a challenge from Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer.
Although the liberal advocacy group Occupy Democrats called an Oct. 9 U.S. Supreme Court ruling about the street address requirement “disgraceful,” the court did not make a legal determination based on North Dakota’s law. It merely declined to intervene. The ruling was a 6-2 decision with justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting. Newly sworn–in justice Brett Kavanaugh did not participate.
The disenfranchisement of Native American voters may not be as clear-cut as Democrats want people to believe, though. Tribal officials and a voting rights advocacy group called Four Directions are working with the Secretary of State’s office to clear the way for Native Americans to secure acceptable forms of identification, such as tribal voting letters, in time to vote.
Still, the potential powerful impact of that voting population is real. In her dissent in the Supreme Court decision, Ginsburg noted that a significant number of the state’s voters are affected by the address requirement –– approximately 70,000, which she said represents about 20 percent of the turnout in a regular four-year election cycle. If Native Americans can’t vote or are put off by having to jump through the state’s hoops, Heitkamp could well lose the seat, though it could be argued that she may be destined to lose it anyway. Results from a Gray Television poll last week put Heitkamp behind Cramer by 16 points, a spread four points higher than a Fox News survey conducted Sept. 29 through Oct. 2.
In Georgia, where early voting began Oct. 15, Secretary of State and GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp has been slammed with multiple lawsuits because of his exact-match policy that has led to more than 53,000 voter applications being placed on hold. About 70 percent of the applicants are black, according to the Associated Press. Under the policy, citizens can be denied the right to vote over slight discrepancies between their voter registration applications and forms of ID, including hyphens and accent marks.
Kemp is facing competition from Democrat Stacey Abrams, former minority leader of Georgia’s House of Representatives and the first black woman to be nominated for governor by a major political party in the state. The race has been tight, and voters have been flocking to the polls. According to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, 296,500 votes had been cast by the end of the third day of early voting, compared to 100,400 for the first three days of early voting in 2014.
Kemp has accused Abrams of manufacturing a crisis to raise campaign financing from “left-wing radicals,” but he has been accused before of voter suppression through other tried-and-true tactics. Since becoming secretary of state in 2010, the Republican has closed hundreds of polling locations, most of which were in rural counties where there are high concentrations of minority populations, and he also purged voter rolls of more than 1.4 million “inactive” voters. In Georgia, voters can be flagged for a purge if they have no contact with election officials for three years. They are mailed a notice warning them that their voter registration is in jeopardy. If they do not respond or vote in two subsequent elections, they are purged from the rolls.
His campaign told Snopes.com that the pending registrations for a disproportionate number of black applicants is due to, not voter suppression, but the tactics of the New Georgia Project, an organization founded by Abrams in 2014 to register minority voters. The group refuses to use online voter registration, the campaign said, and insists on using only paper applications. Hand-written paper applications allegedly can be harder to read, increasing the chance of a discrepancy challenge.
In Texas, where early voting began on Oct. 22, voter suppression allegations have not just centered on Mason and Ortega. Secretary of State Rolando Pablos stepped in after the validity of voter registrations of thousands of students at the predominantly black Prairie View A&M University in Waller County near Houston were thrown into question. The controversy began when the local elections administrator said that students who live on campus had been incorrectly told to register to vote using an address in a different precinct and would have to fill out change-of-address forms if they wanted to cast a midterm ballot.
The problem stemmed from a 2016 agreement between county, university, and local party officials that would allow students to register to vote under the university’s address, either 100 or 700 University Dr. The county discovered during the March primary that one of those addresses falls in another precinct. Since many Prairie View students do not have vehicles, voting in that precinct was problematic.
The controversy grew, gaining national media attention, after Jason Aronowitz, a field director for Democratic congressional candidate Mike Siegel, was arrested at the Waller County courthouse after taking a photo to prove that he had handed a clerk the campaign’s letter challenging the change-of-address requirement. Siegel, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, was on the phone with Aronowitz at the time. Both men claim that Aronowitz was taken into custody and charged with the C misdemeanor of failing to identify after being asked the party of the candidate he represented.
Waller County officials and Prairie View A&M students have long butted heads over voting rights. In 1979, a voting rights case involving the university’s students went before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court upheld the students’ rights to register to vote at their college address after county officials claimed they weren’t residents. Despite the ruling, Waller County District Attorney Oliver Kitzman in 2003 claimed that Prairie View students didn’t meet state residency requirements and therefore were ineligible to vote. He later relented after his stance led to protest marches and a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Months later, Kitzman announced his resignation.
Pablos, the secretary of state, announced earlier this month that Prairie View students would not have to provide a change of address form or statement of residence to be able to vote.
Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Deborah Peoples believes that tactics are often used to suppress the minority vote. Although she acknowledges that she does not know all the facts regarding Mason’s case, she feels that what happened to her “doesn’t pass the smell test,” not just in comparison to Casey’s get-out-of-jail-free privilege but also as it pertains to other election-related situations, such as the one involving Terri Lynn Rote.
In August, the Cleveland resident, who is white, was sentenced to two years of probation and a $750 fine for her own misdeeds during the 2016 presidential election. Believing Trump’s claims that the election was “rigged” and fearing that her first vote for The Apprentice star might not count because of it, Rote voted twice. She was arrested while casting the second ballot and pleaded guilty to election misconduct. Her felony conviction will be erased from her record once she pays the fine and successfully completes probation.
Like Casey, Rote was aware that she was committing a crime but did it anyway. Mason, on the other hand, claims that she simply followed the guidance of a poll worker in filling out a provisional ballot after her name could not be located on the voter rolls. Peoples believes that, although authorities are pursuing election-related wrongdoing, they are doing so “only against certain people.” She and Mason’s attorney, Alison Grinter, said that Mason’s provisional ballot didn’t even end up counting in overall vote tallies.
“I don’t understand why it was considered a vote,” Peoples said. “It was an attempt to vote.”
Grinter said there are “a lot of lenses you can look at this through, and they all speak to a disparity. Privilege in this country has always been about who is allowed to make a mistake.”
Part of the problem, though, could be that, while Mason may not have ever voted illegally before, she made other “mistakes” that caused her to collide with the justice system.
The fact that Mason’s provisional ballot was illegal because it was cast while she was on supervision states the obvious: She has a record. Her rap sheet contains a 1992 arson charge for which she received probation and a 1997 charge of forgery of a financial instrument, in addition to a more recent tax fraud case for which she did prison time.
In 2011, Mason pleaded guilty to the felony tax fraud charge. She admitted that, between 2005 and 2008, she and her then-husband, Sanford Taylor Hobbs III, submitted amplified tax refunds to the Internal Revenue Service on behalf of clients they served through their Fort Worth-area tax preparation business, CMH Enterprises, also known as CMH Tax & Notary Service. Each was sentenced to five years in federal prison and ordered to pay restitution. Mason served her time at Carswell, the same federal prison where she is housed today.
While Mason may not be a particularly sympathetic figure considering her past, Casey’s attempt to rig his own election was not his only violation of public trust. In May of last year, the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a public reprimand against the Northeastern Tarrant County JP because of an improper sexual relationship he had with his former chief clerk. The married elected official claimed that the relationship was consensual. The woman claimed sexual harassment.
Both stated that the sexual encounters spanned several years and included mostly oral sex but with intercourse occurring on two occasions. According to details provided through the Commission’s written opinion, the woman told Casey in 2013 that she would no longer participate with him in sexual activity. Casey again requested oral sex from her during work hours in August 2014 and exposed himself to her, the woman told the Commission, but she “bolted” from the office. She said that shortly after that incident, Casey initiated termination procedures against her.
Casey perhaps has his own stupidity to blame for his troubles. His attempts to fire his then-chief clerk was what led to her speaking with the county’s human resources department and, ultimately, the Texas Judicial Conduct Commission. And his attempt to remove his two opponents, Bill Brandt and Lenny Lopez, from the Republican primary ballot by filing a lawsuit claiming that their petitions did not contain enough valid signatures resulted in attention being drawn to his own petition.
Aaron Harris of Direct Action Texas, a political advocacy organization, said that after Lopez sought his counsel for dealing with Casey’s petition challenge, he advised Lopez to retain a lawyer and obtain copies of Casey’s and Brandt’s petitions. Harris said that Lopez had not even pulled out of the parking lot after picking up copies of the petitions when he phoned with the news that the signatures on Casey’s paperwork looked as if they had been written by the same person.
The next day, Harris and Lopez began knocking on the doors of voters in Precinct 3 who had allegedly signed Casey’s petition, and that’s when the JP’s career as a public official began to unravel. Harris said he filed a formal complaint with the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office, which then began its own investigation. Casey withdrew his application to be on the ballot, but the party also acted to remove him, Harris said.
Considering that neither Mason nor Casey have spotless histories, is the disparity in their recent punishments truly as clear as, well, black and white? Yes, in the opinion of Harris, who is a self-proclaimed Republican.
“He pled out and walked free, which I felt was a bit of a problem,” Harris said of Casey. “The court should have determined his fate, not the district attorney. It looks like an insider Republican deal, so I’m criticizing my own party people. The easy sentence was to a white Republican male that [DA Wilson] single-handedly determined the fate of.”
Wilson’s integrity has been questioned before. Last year, a special prosecutor was assigned to investigate a criminal complaint involving an email she sent to her employees’ personal accounts, inviting them to a campaign fundraiser and seeking donations of up to $1,000. The special prosecutor, Wichita County District Attorney Maureen Shelton, a Republican, determined that there was “insufficient evidence of criminal intent” to move the case forward.
I sought a response from the Tarrant County district attorney’s office about the allegations of disparity in Mason’s and Casey’s punishments, but Communications Officer Samantha Jordan told me via email that the office had no comment.
Harris’ criticism of Wilson and Casey does not translate into sympathy for Mason and Ortega. He believes that Mason knew she was not supposed to vote while under supervision and that Ortega, whose trial he observed, lied and the jury knew it. He said that Ortega sounded coached and gave conflicting statements in her testimony. He’s angry over the sentence she received but only because of how it affects taxpayers.
“We’re having taxpayers pay for three solids for eight years only to have her turn around and get deported,” he said, referring to prison meals. “If I’d been on the jury, I would have given her six months, something like that. Paired with the automatic deportation, she would have gotten more than her just desserts.”
Ortega’s lawyer, Domingo Garcia, did not respond to my request for an interview.
Some see Mason’s and Ortega’s cases as just further examples of how the voices of minorities, especially those with criminal records, are drowned out by a system that wants them to have no say in American government. Democratic chair Peoples believes that the prosecution of Mason was “absolutely” an attempt to frighten away from the polls those who have been under supervision, even if their debt to society has been fully paid. She said that many people who are “off paper” –– a term used to describe someone who has successfully completed parole or probation –– don’t even try to participate in the election process.
“We’re seeing this all over, this idea of trying to frighten people into not voting,” she said.
Peoples questions why Mason was even given a ballot in the first place when her name was not found on the voter rolls.
“I just think there were some questionable things in that whole process,” she said.
Republican Party Chair Darl Easton told me he wasn’t familiar with all the details of the case but suspects that the judge took into consideration Mason’s previous criminal charges. Had there been no prior criminal acts on her record, he feels sure the judge probably would have given her probation.
For Mason’s family, voting is a tradition that began with her now-deceased grandmother, Mae Lawrence, a stewardess who became a union representative. She always kept abreast of what was happening in the country and encouraged her family members to vote, said Woods, 45.
McGrady said she instilled that same sense of civic responsibility in her own children. When Mason pulled into the driveway of her Rendon home at 6 p.m. on Nov. 8, 2016, after driving home from Dallas, McGrady accused her of not having stopped to vote.
“She said, ‘I’m going now, Mom,’ ” McGrady said.
Mason had stopped at the house first to pick up her niece so that she, too, could vote at a neighborhood church that served as a polling location.
McGrady said that an election judge who knew Mason was on felony supervision hand-carried her provisional ballot to the district attorney’s office. She said her daughter was informed that she had broken the law when she reported to her parole officer.
“She was devastated,” McGrady said. “She cried.”
The family members insist they are not bitter but said they are disappointed at a system that let them down.
“The hard part of dealing with this particular situation is that she didn’t know” she was voting illegally, Woods said. “And with the justice of the peace, he actually knew what he was doing. He deliberately did it. She didn’t know what she was doing. She did it by accident with a provisional ballot that didn’t count.”
Wright said it makes no sense that Mason would intentionally put her freedom in jeopardy when her son was about to head to college on a football scholarship. The young man recently graduated from high school and is now attending Sul Ross State University in Alpine.
“Why would she put herself at risk?” Wright asked.
Mason’s longtime friend Darlene Wright is angry over what she feels is an injustice. She insisted that Mason didn’t thoroughly read paperwork stating that felons cannot legally vote until they have fully completed their sentences, including parole and probation, and that she simply made a mistake.
“She did not intentionally commit a crime,” Wright said by phone as I sat with McGrady, Woods, and Wright at the CMH Events Center. She had planned on being present for the interview but could not get away from work. “Being uneducated is not something to crucify her for when you have serious situations that go on every day. She didn’t get five years because of what she did. She got five years because she was an African-American. But it’s bigger than black or white. It’s about politics. And it’s definitely about Republicans and Democrats.”
McGrady said that in those final days of freedom, her daughter fasted and prayed, hoping that she would somehow be spared the ordeal of prison time.
“But when it really set in her mind, you could tell it,” she said.
When Mason reported to Carswell on Sept. 27, her pastor, her children, and other family members went with her to say goodbye. A television news crew filmed a smiling and upbeat Mason coaching two little girls in the group to say, “No justice, no peace” before walking to the facility’s main doors, her head held high.
McGrady, who has feelings of guilt because she encouraged her daughter to vote, has thus far refused to let her faith be shaken.
“We’re trusting God that he is going to turn it around,” she said.
I was surprised to learn that Mason can send and receive emails at Carswell. I communicated with her that way because a man in the media office told me that obtaining permission for face-to-face interviews can take weeks, sometimes even months. Through emails, Mason insisted to me that she had not intentionally broken the law and that she had followed the instructions of a poll worker with the understanding that if there were any kind of problem with her ballot, it would not be counted. She said that she is relying on faith and family to see her through. There was a hint, though, that she may have her moments.
“I can’t believe this is really happening,” she said.