“Shut Out” is a three-part podcast series produced by HuffPost. We don’t make it easy to vote in America. A citizen can be disenfranchised for a typo, a scrawled signature or for a felony. Then there are the politicians who tout “voter fraud” when it’s a proven myth. Host Catherine Saint Louis and reporter Sam Levine examine why we should be worried about the weakening of our democracy with 2020 on the horizon.
Crystal Mason couldn’t believe it when a police officer told her she was being arrested for illegally voting. She was handcuffed, prosecuted and eventually imprisoned for her so-called crime.
Mason didn’t even want to vote in the 2016 election, but her mother insisted. So one day after work, she drove to the polling place where she’d always voted and cast a provisional ballot. Mason had no idea she was forbidden from voting because she was on supervised release after a felony conviction.
Still, Texas officials prosecuted her for illegally voting and won a conviction. She was sentenced to five years in state prison, plus an additional 10 months in federal prison. Lorraine Minnite, a Rutgers professor who has studied voter fraud nationwide, said that Mason’s sentence was “ridiculous” and that prosecutors may have been trying to make an example of her.
In America, most of us don’t think twice about the fact that people like Mason with felony convictions can’t vote. When you commit a crime, the thinking goes, you surrender your right to be a full-fledged citizen. But why is this the case?
In Episode 2 of “Shut Out,” we talk to a few of the 6.1 million Americans who can’t vote because of a felony conviction. We trace the racist history of these laws and talk to a man in Florida who had to navigate a maze of bureaucracy to get his voting rights back for a crime he was convicted of nearly two decades ago. We also interview Mason from federal prison. The conviction has upended her life, but the ordeal has transformed her from apathetic voter to fully engaged.
Episode 2: Jailed for Voting
Catherine Saint Louis: A crazy thing happened to a Texas woman in the lead-up to the midterms. Crystal Mason, a 43-year-old mother, got arrested and later sentenced to prison time. It was for an unusual reason ― for voting.
After Crystal cast a ballot in 2016, she went home and thought nothing of it. Until one day a stranger approached her in a hallway.
Crystal Mason: A lady stopped me and said, “Go ahead and place your hands behind your back. You are being arrested for illegally voting.” And when she said it, I had to think like, “Are you serious?”
She put me to the car. And when I went in the car, that’s when I said, “But ma’am, tell me why I’m being arrested. I did everything right.” She said, “You’re on probation and you don’t supposed to vote on probation.” I was like, “What? I don’t have any of this in my paperwork. No one told me I couldn’t vote, ma’am.” I’m like pleading like, “Ma’am, don’t take me to jail. This gotta be a mistake.”
Saint Louis: What were you thinking in that moment?
Mason: I was devastated. That was the one place that I was never going back to. That was the one place that was nowhere near on my plan of my future.
Saint Louis: That’s because Crystal Mason had already been to prison. She served more than three years for tax fraud. In 2015, she was released to a halfway house and reunited with her kids. She had a job and was going to school.
But this year, Crystal was sentenced to five years in state prison and 10 months in federal prison. That’s where she is today.
All because she cast a ballot.
Mason: I was offered eight years for illegally voting …
Saint Louis: And she got five
Mason: …and just didn’t make any sense. “Are y’all serious?”
Saint Louis: From HuffPost, this is Shut Out, a podcast about the fight to vote in America. I’m your host Catherine Saint Louis. This is Episode 2, “Jailed for Voting.”
In Texas, felons on probation like Crystal can’t vote. To be able to, they have to be totally done with their sentence. Off parole. Off probation. No longer under any supervision.
But Crystal didn’t know that. She says no one ever told her. Not the judge who sentenced her, and no one at the halfway house where she first lived when she got out.
Mason: My supervised release officer’s supervisor testified on the stand and stated that he never told me that I could not vote.
Saint Louis: Yeah, so you didn’t know.
Saint Louis: It’s easy to see why Crystal would be confused. The rules on when felons can vote vary widely. In some states, you can vote on probation. In two states, you can even vote while incarcerated. In the strictest states, felons can never vote again. You heard that right: They get a lifetime ban.
Marc Mauer: There’s enormous confusion about felony disenfranchisement laws. The amount of confusion is remarkable in the fact that every state can determine its own policies means it’s just a maze to get through and to try to understand what your legal rights actually are.
Saint Louis: That’s Marc Mauer. He’s the executive director of The Sentencing Project, a group dedicated to criminal justice reform.
Even election officials don’t always know the rules on which felons can vote when.
In 2005, The Sentencing Project called up election officials in 10 states to give them a kind of pop quiz on their local policy. They did not do very well.
Mauer: We found a 30 percent error rate among the election officials themselves.
Saint Louis: Actually 37 percent of officials got it wrong.
Mauer: In some cases, they believed people had the right to vote when that was not the policy in their state. In other cases, they incorrectly thought people were denied the right to vote in certain circumstances when that was not the case, either.
Saint Louis: If a third of election officials get their state policy wrong, how can we expect felons like Crystal to always get it right?
Crystal didn’t even want to vote. A guilt trip is what got her to the polls for the 2016 presidential election. Her mom wouldn’t let up.
Mason: She’d been telling me over and over, “Crystal, go vote, go vote.” I was like, “Yes, Mom, I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it.” When I got off work, it was raining. I was like, “Ugh.”
Saint Louis: Still, she picked her niece and they went together.
Mason: We went down to the local church, right here on Rendon Drive.
Saint Louis: It was same church where Crystal had voted before she went to prison.
Mason: A young man… well, he was looking for my name, then he turned around and he said, “I don’t see you anywhere.” I was like, “OK, then.”
Saint Louis: Her niece was getting impatient.
Mason: “She was just standing there like, “OK, then. We can’t vote. Let’s go.”
Saint Louis: They decided to leave. “So were you kind of resigned that you couldn’t vote or were you mad that you couldn’t?”
Mason: I wasn’t at all. I was like, “OK, I did what my mom said. I came here, OK.”
Saint Louis: If this were a movie, this would be the turning point. Because if Crystal had walked away and gotten in her car, she wouldn’t be in prison.
But then the poll worker made a suggestion.
Mason: And the guy said, “But you can fill out a provisional form.” And I was like, “Well, what’s that?” He said, “If you’re at the right location, it’ll count, but if you’re not, it won’t.” I said, “Oh, OK, well, I can fill out that.”
Saint Louis: To cast a provisional ballot, Crystal had to sign an affidavit swearing that she was an eligible voter and not on supervised release. It’s in a long chunk of information in the tiniest font at the top of the form.
But she did what so many of us do ― she skipped the fine print and signed.
In court, she said she never would have voted had she known it was forbidden. She had just seen her daughter graduate high school. Things were going well. She argued in court: Why would she jeopardize everything to vote?
In the end, the vote she cast didn’t even count. And still, she got punished.
Lorraine Minnite: “This is a ridiculous, ridiculous sentence. And it’s really distressing, you know, that someone can be prosecuted and given a five-year term for voting.”
That’s Lorraine Minnite. She’s the author of The Myth of Voter Fraud and a Rutgers professor.
Minnite: She was willing to say, “I made a mistake. I own it. I made a mistake.” I think that’s very clear. Why was she prosecuted? She was perhaps prosecuted and received a harsh sentence because there was an effort to make an example of her.
Saint Louis: Timing was everything. The district attorney who prosecuted Crystal ― Her name was Sharen Wilson ― was running for re-election touting herself as a “proven champion for justice.” Crystal got her harsh sentence before the midterms. And her case got national attention.
Crystal felt her prosecution was about making a statement.
Saint Louis: “What do you think the statement is, Crystal?”
Mason: Stay away from the polls. Hey, if you go to the polls, this could happen to you, so it leaves a lot of people unsure of ― can they vote or not?
Saint Louis: That confusion is a kind of voter suppression. Felons who heard of Crystal’s case might not vote. Felons might stay home rather than risk breaking the rules.
We reached out to Sharen Wilson, the D.A. of Tarrant County, after she won re-election in November. And she declined to comment on Crystal’s case.
Why does the United States disenfranchise people like Crystal? And not just a few. Roughly 6 million Americans can’t vote because of a felony.
And in our country, it seems like felons are never done paying for their crime. Even if they’ve served their time, been on probation for years, they’re considered second-class citizens every Election Day.
Somehow, voting rights has become wrapped in a morality play. Today, it’s as if felons have to pass a character test to vote. That’s not democratic. In a democracy…
Mauer: When you turn 18 everyone can march down to the local city hall and register to vote. No one asks me if I have a drinking problem. No one asks me if I’ve been a truant at school. That’s what we mean by democracy: It’s not a question of character. It’s a question of citizenship.
Throughout American history, the right to vote has been expanded to different groups. African Americans. Women. Teenagers. But one group that we still feel comfortable shutting out is people with felony convictions. All because of this kind of character test.
Mauer: Over the course of some 200 years, we’ve done away with all those other exclusions, and the ban on people with felony conviction remains the fundamental block to full democratic participation in the United States.
Saint Louis: In Episode 1, we covered how poll taxes and literacy tests were used to keep black men from voting after 1870, when the 15th Amendment was adopted. But another powerful and often overlooked tool was taking away their right to vote if they committed certain crimes.
Take Alabama. In 1850, just 2 percent of prisoners were not white. But in 1870, just 20 years later, they made up 74 percent of prisoners. What changed?
That massive increase came after 1868, when Alabama banned voting by all felons and ex-felons. Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza described this period well in their book, Locked Out.
Forty-eight states legally disenfranchise people with felony convictions in some way. But nowhere is this is a bigger deal than in Florida.
More than a quarter of felons who can’t vote live in the Sunshine State.
Mauer: Florida has been the epicenter of felony disenfranchisement.
Saint Louis: Florida was another state that made it harder for felons to vote after the Civil War.
Until recently, more than one in five African-Americans in Florida couldn’t vote due to felony convictions. And black people are disproportionately impacted because they’re more likely to be charged with a felony than a white person who commits the same crime.
Florida has a long history of permanently taking away voting rights from felons.
And to get them back, some felons have to appeal to the governor himself. But first they have to completely finish their sentence, then wait five to seven years, and then apply for clemency. And even after that, it can be a long wait for a hearing.
This September, I went to a clemency hearing in Tallahassee. I met a 58-year-old felon who was forced to sit out every election for 23 years.
Rolando Jesus Pieiga: My name is Rolando Pieiga, and I came to restore my civil rights and, thank God, I got it. (Elevator beep)
Saint Louis: We’re in an elevator. Our interview happened on the move because he was running ― literally ― to catch a plane back home to Davie, Florida. But while I had him, I asked him why did he apply for clemency.
Pieiga: It’s important to exercise your right to vote, and if they take it away from you, you feel like a misfit.
Saint Louis: When did you put in for clemency, sir?
Saint Louis: That’s 11 years ago. That’s incredible.
Pieiga: I hear there’s a lot of people stuck, you know, in the pipeline…
Saint Louis: He’s right. For years, there has been a backlog of more than 10,000 applications. That’s because hearings only happen four times a year.
“So, do you feel lucky?”
Pieiga: Absolutely. God bless.
Saint Louis: Lucky, and yet you waited 11 years, sir.
Saint Louis: Another lucky one was Ricardo McLeroy. He got his hearing after seven years. He was just a skinny 21-year-old when he lost his right to vote because of a felony.
You don’t have to show up in Tallahassee, but it really helps if you come in person to plead your case. Some people drive all night. Others fly. Ricardo lives in Florida’s capital. So last June, he took the day off and went to try to get his voting rights back.
Clemency hearing announcer: Number 82. Ricardo McLeroy is here.
Saint Louis: Ricardo stepped up to a podium. He was in a classic white Polo shirt, slacks and loafers. He looked much younger than his 38 years.
Gov. Rick Scott: Good morning.
Saint Louis: When it came time for him to speak, Ricardo was nervous.
McLeroy: I am just going to state that I assume all responsibilities of my acts for the situation that happened in 2001. I’m pretty much a more mature man. The last 12 years I’ve been working at Southern Seafood, so just open to getting my rights back so I can vote and do whatever I need to do.
Saint Louis: Ricardo was facing a clemency board of four state officials. Attorney General Pam Bondi was there, and then-Gov. Rick Scott, too. They have a thick file on each applicant. Behind Ricardo, there was an audience of people waiting for their turn at the podium. Some will ask for their right to carry a handgun again. Others want to be able to vote. It’s uncomfortable to see grown men and women beg.
“What did it feel like in that moment to have four people not only judging your past but definitely sizing you up in the moment?”
McLeroy: It’s almost terrifying because, like for one, if you’re not a person who can speak in public and you’re kind of intimidated and shy already, to get up in front of multiple people and have to explain why do you think you should have your rights restored? It’s kind of like, ’Oh, my God, what do you say?”
Saint Louis: Nearly two decades ago, Ricardo got convicted of aggravated battery after a domestic dispute. He was visiting a girlfriend at her apartment when they began to argue. A neighbor called the cops. And, in the end, Ricardo was arrested. At his clemency hearing, Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s chief financial officer, asked him about that day in 2001.
Jimmy Patronis: So, I’m reading your version of the story.
Patronis: You’re outside playing basketball and she started digging through your phone.
Patronis: Were you running around on her?
Saint Louis: Ricardo mutters a faint “No.” But he’s otherwise speechless. So when we met in September, we listened to the hearing together, and I asked him…
What did you think about that comment?
McLeroy: I kind of took that a little personal. I’m not going to lie, because it kind of made me seem like I’m running around with multiple women at that particular time. What does that have to do with my rights? But OK, we wasn’t exclusive if you want to know. You ask a person that type of question, and I got to answer in a room full of people. How do you answer that question in a professional way?
Saint Louis: No questions are off limits at Florida’s clemency hearings. There isn’t even a set criteria for felons to meet to have their rights restored. Courts have the law to guide them. But clemency board?
Gov. Scott: Our clemency board makes judgments of conscience based upon the suitability of each applicant to be granted clemency.
Saint Louis: Put another way, then-Gov. Scott explained…
Gov. Scott: There’s no law we’re following. The law has already been followed by the judges. So we get to make the decisions based on our own beliefs.
Saint Louis: Really, what he’s saying is he’s the decider, and these other state officials are, too. The four of us will judge you according to our morals. We reserve the right to shame you in public. We alone decide who is good and who’s bad, kind of like God does.
So don’t flinch when we ask you about miscarriage…
Gov. Scott: So, um, she lost the baby?
Saint Louis: Or your habits …
Gov. Scott: Do you use drugs now?
Saint Louis: The clemency board just might ask you about your six kids and whether you fathered them with the same woman or multiple women. Patronis has asked clemency applicants and their relatives.
Patronis: Y’all go to church?
Patronis: Do you ever go take your parents to dinner?
Saint Louis: I, for one, would love to know what footing the restaurant bill has to do with voting. But the clemency board never has give an explanation for their rationale.
There’s a memorable moment at the end of Ricardo’s seven minutes that shows just how much discretion the board has.
When Ricardo gets his rights back, he’s grateful and shocked. The board had grilled him about his sex life and marriage status. And then suddenly, their verdict was positive.
Gov. Scott: Move to grant.
Two others on the board: Agree. Agree.
McLeroy: Wow. Thank you. Thank you.
Saint Louis: Ricardo was so elated he didn’t hear what else was caught on tape. So when we met, I played it for him.
Patronis is the board member who asked whether Ricardo was sleeping around. He turned to Rick Scott, and said…
Patronis: He didn’t know how that was going to go.
Saint Louis: What Patronis said was Ricardo didn’t know how that was going to go. And then Gov. Scott responded.
Gov. Scott: Now, if he hadn’t been here….
Saint Louis: “Now, if he hadn’t been here.” Patronis says, “Yeah, exactly.”
It’s rare to have two people in power so openly acknowledge that power. In that moment, they decided Ricardo should vote again, so he can. For them, it was just seven minutes; for Ricardo, it changed how he sees himself.
McLeroy: You gain a part of yourself back.
Saint Louis: So it’s pretty good that you showed up, right?
McLeroy: Definitely. It definitely was a good thing that I showed up because just hearing what I just heard was kind of like, had I not been there, it would have been the easy decision to just say, “Deny.”
Saint Louis: For centuries, we, as Americans, have been comfortable with the fact that criminals lose their right to vote.
But that may be changing. In November, Floridians voted to abolish the part of their constitution that forbid felons from casting ballots. The change was called Amendment 4.
So people like Ricardo won’t have to go to the governor and beg. After their sentence is complete, their debt paid, they automatically will have their voting rights restored. This is one of the largest expansions of voting rights in modern times. It’s so significant that advocates compare it to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Mauer: Amendment 4 alone has re-enfranchised about 1 of every 4 people nationally who had lost the right to vote. Just this single amendment in a single state has made that much of a difference.
Saint Louis: When I spoke to Crystal Mason in September, she had just days until she had to go back to prison. She was upset, especially when we talked about her kids and her derailed future.
Mason: I feel like I’m the prime example of rehabilitation. When I got out in 2015, I got in school. I got a job, and then I went and got a better job, and I was still being a provider to my kids, being a mother, number one. I opened up an event center. I have all these positives that you should be focused on, but you turn around and try to penalize me for something I didn’t know.
Saint Louis: With less than a week till prison, do you know what Crystal was doing?
Mason: I’ve been talking to the community about voting. So, this is my drive and my energy, and that’s it. I walk the neighborhood, I’m passing out flyers. I got people coming to my event center tonight. We’re holding a voter registration drive.
Saint Louis: In her last days of freedom, Crystal was getting out the vote. Why?
Mason: So many people that I have talked to that’s not on probation, that don’t have a felony and that has never voted. I have a 30-year-old that I spoke with, and I told her, “Please be my voice. Please.”
Saint Louis: Recently, we called Crystal in prison. The background noise can get a little loud at times.
Mason: Hello. How are you doing?
Levine: Good. How are you?
Mason: I’m fine. Thank you.
Levine: My name is Sam Levine. I am a reporter at HuffPost and I cover voting rights here, and I’ve been closely following your case. And I’m here with my colleague Catherine, who I know you talked to…
Saint Louis: Hi, Crystal.
When we spoke to her, Crystal said her teenagers were getting out the vote, too. Her son and daughter knocked on doors for Beto O’Rourke.
Mason: And when she ran across people that kept saying, “Well, voting is not gonna make a difference,” she said she shared them my story. She said, “Mom I got so many people to vote off of your story.”
Saint Louis: Crystal used to be apathetic about voting. Remember how her mother had to nag her to do it. But now, in federal prison, she can’t stop watching politics on TV. Here’s Sam asking her about it…
Levine: Have you kept up with politics? The midterm elections we just had…
Mason: Yes. I sat in front of the TV from 7:30 a.m. to 11. Yes, I have been all in it. It’s so important now because, again like I said, my case, if it was the right people in the office, it wouldn’t have even went this far.
Saint Louis: She’s doing OK but as she said…
Mason: I’m here, I feel like, for no reason, and it’s just overwhelming.
Saint Louis: On the outside, Crystal’s daughter is now responsible for keeping their household going.
Mason: I have a 19-year-old baby that’s trying to work and trying to pay my mortgage…
Saint Louis: Crystal emails her kids, and she calls home as often as she can. But her phone time in prison is restricted. She gets about five hours a month. That comes out to about 10 minutes a day. So it’s a challenge.
Mason: I run through those minutes so quick…
Saint Louis: “Five hours? Per month? The way you talk? You’re chatty.
Mason: I know. That’s what I was thinking. (Laugh.)
Saint Louis: Wow. That isn’t that long, especially when you’re trying to also parent, you know?
Saint Louis: Because a lot of that is, “Did you? Did you do that? Did this get paid?”
Mason: Oh, Lord! And then she wants to say, “Oh, mom, can I go here? No! I don’t want you to go out, I just want you to stay focused. So you want me to be the parent, but yet I can’t have fun? Yes, that’s what I want.” (Laugh.)
Saint Louis: It sounds like pretty typical conversations. That part hasn’t changed.
Levine: You can tell Catherine’s a mom.
Saint Louis: Imagine trying to balance how much encouragement you give your kids in those quick prison calls and how much to stay on them to keep them focused. When do you discipline them? When do you comfort them and tell them it’s going to work out, even if you’re not sure?
Levine: People use a very powerful word ― or phrase ― when they talk about your case. They use the phrase “voter suppression.” Do you think what happened to you is voter suppression?
Mason: I felt like with them proving a point to ensure that I go to jail before this election, then that would stop a lot of people from going to the polls. That would stop a lot of, um, we can say the black community. It makes you skeptical, “Oh, no, I’m not going to do it ’cause I don’t know.”
Saint Louis: But what would Crystal say to those skeptics?
Mason: Don’t let that stop them. What they need to do is get educated. Get more knowledge on what they can do. If they’re eligible, then, by means, go vote. If they’re not, find out when they are.
Saint Louis: Crystal’s been incarcerated since September. Her case has attracted attention. Right now, there are two petitions online seeking a pardon for her. #Justice4Crystal has more than 39,000 signatures. Another petition has 76,000.
She’s trying to stay positive. But she can’t bear to think of the holidays. When I asked about her plans to video-chat with her family, she got silent. She didn’t want to talk about it.
Mason: I’ve been getting a lot of support letters. A lot of people reaching out to me letting me know I’m in their prayers.
Saint Louis: One gentleman wrote that he was “absolutely sick and angry” about her prosecution.
Mason: A lot of people see the unfairness of this situation and just, I don’t know, really. I’m just so overwhelmed with it. It’s kind of like, you know how like you’re stuck in a dream, like this is just not true? It’s just unbelievable, you know. These are doors I said I’ll never come back to and yet I’m here.
Saint Louis: Crystal’s appealing her conviction. But if the appeal isn’t successful, she could be incarcerated until 2024.
You’ve been listening to Shut Out, a podcast about the fight to vote in America. I’m your host, Catherine Saint Louis.
Next time on “Shut Out,” we’re going to Georgia.
Kristen Clarke: Georgia is the belly of the beast when it comes to voter suppression in our country right now.
Saint Louis: And we’ll hear from people on the ground fighting for their right to vote in America.
Wanda Mosley: When I say black voters, you say matter. Black voters. Matter. Black voters. Matter. Black voters. Matter.
Saint Louis: This episode was written and reported by Sam Levine and me.
We’re edited by Samantha Storey. Additional reporting by Angelina Chapin.
I produced this episode with studio assistance from Nick Offenberg and Sara Patterson.
Special thanks to Paul Josephson, Jo Confino and Angelina Chapin.
And a huge thumbs up to HuffPost’s Marc Janks, who managed this production with grace.
“Shut Out” is a production of HuffPost.
Several books and articles informed this episode. Here are a few: