I first learned about Crystal Mason’s predicament on March 30, 2018, one day after a state judge in Texas sentenced her to five years in prison for voting.
Mason cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 presidential election at the behest of her mother. It had never been her intention to vote, and in any case her vote was never counted, and yet the confluence of weak federal protections for voters, and Texas’s merciless treatment of convicts, conspired to catch Mason in a trap.
Shortly before the 2016 election, Mason was released from prison after serving five years for federal tax fraud, which made her ineligible to vote in Texas until she completed probation. But nobody ever told her that. She insists that if she’d known her right to vote had been revoked, and that she could return to prison for casting a ballot, she wouldn’t have done it.
Also on March 30, I received a message from a Stanford University graduate student named Alexandra Blackman, who, along with her colleague Ian Sethre, was co-teaching a course on American government to inmates at San Quentin State Prison, through an organization called the Prison University Project. Her students had written short columns about California’s felon disenfranchisement law, which she sent me for review in the hope that I’d publish them.
I agreed in part because reading about Mason’s kafkaesque experience had placed the cruel practice of felon disenfranchisement at the front of my mind, but also because of the important differences between her story and the stories from San Quentin.
The Prison University Project’s students know that they’ve lost their voting rights, so they are unlikely to fall into the same trap that ensnared Mason.
But for the most part, the San Quentin students weren’t just arguing that they (and Mason and other prisoners) should have their voting rights restored once they complete their sentences. They were questioning the basis of felon disenfranchisement in the first place. Why the hell can’t prisoners—U.S. citizens serving felony sentences—vote from within their institutions?
With Blackman’s help, I arranged a visit to San Quentin where I spoke with some of the students whose op-eds we’ve published here. Most of them only came to understand the value of the right they’d lost after it had been taken away from them. Before they entered the correctional system, they had (with rare exception) voted infrequently or never voted at all. Some have been incarcerated since their late teen years, before they were eligible to vote in any elections. Others simply grew up and lived in circumstances that didn’t promote civic engagement. Many inmates described their communities as racked with despair; in their experience, the same hopelessness and deprivation that breed crime also breed cynicism about voting.
Disenfranchisement contributes to this vicious cycle, and forecloses an alternative that would both help rehabilitate prisoners and improve their communities. Crystal Mason is serving time for voting. For violating the terms of her supervised release, she was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison, and unless she can get her voting conviction overturned, she will face years of additional incarceration for violating Texas state law. This is a miscarriage of justice, and an act of cruelty to Mason, but it’s also a fresh source of despair. Disenfranchisement laws vary state to state, and not everybody who’s served time in prison knows whether they’re allowed to vote legally or not. If they come to see voting as entrapment, they won’t vote; if their friends and families believe—with good reason—that their governments are using voting laws as weapons against their communities, it will reinforce their cynicism about voting even among those whose rights remain intact.
It’s easy to imagine an alternative in which the government didn’t harass people like Crystal Mason, because that alternative exists—in the states of Maine and Vermont, where people convicted of felonies never lose their voting rights to begin with, even while they’re incarcerated. By no coincidence, Maine and Vermont are the two whitest states in the country, but the principle they’ve adhered to stands everywhere: The cause of justice for victims isn’t served—at all—by depriving people who commit crimes of their voting rights. The fact that many prisoners aren’t regular voters only underscores the silliness of using disenfranchisement as a form of punishment. By contrast, drawing prisoners into civic life, teaching them the importance of voting, immersing them in public issues is an honorable means of rehabilitating them, reducing their recidivism, helping them improve their communities, and, hopefully overtime, creating enough positive change in their communities that the number of people that commit crimes ultimately falls.
Maine and Vermont set the gold standard, but short of re-enfranchising all people with felony records, including those currently incarcerated, states can improve the laws they already have on the books. Texas could have restored Crystal Mason’s right to vote the moment she breathed free air again, instead of withholding it through parole and probation.
In three states—Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky—people with felony records are disenfranchised for life. In November, Florida voters will have an opportunity to tip the scales in a fairer direction by voting for Amendment 4—a ballot initiative that would restore voting rights to most felons who have completed parole and probation. Not a perfect outcome, but a blow for decency, justice, and social cohesion. Yet in Florida, as in the outcry over Crystal Mason’s re-imprisonment, the debate over felon disenfranchisement takes place overwhelmingly among those of us whose voting rights remain intact. That’s why we’re taking you inside the walls of San Quentin, so you can hear from people whose rights have already been rescinded, in their own words.
Before losing my right to vote, I served my country in the United States Navy. I received a service-connected honorable discharge after returning from my deployment during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Even though I’d risked my life as a foreign war veteran, when no absentee ballot arrived during the 2012 or 2016 elections, I felt that I and my earlier service no longer mattered to society. -Nicola Bucci