Crystal Mason is a resident of Tarrant County, Tex.

I’ve lived in Tarrant County, Tex., my entire life. I grew up in my granny’s house in a neighborhood where folks would take care of us when Granny and my mom were at work. Our entire street was pretty much like a family.

The suburban neighborhood where I live now is a good community, too, despite the folks who attend the church across the street with Confederate flags decorating their trucks. But I worked hard to get here. I promised myself that I would buy a home and build a better future for my kids, and I did it.

This is also the community where I was arrested and charged with illegal voting in 2016. After a one-day trial, a judge sentenced me to five years in prison for submitting a provisional ballot, even though it was never counted.

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The whole thing felt like a nightmare. I kept thinking there had been a mistake. Never did I think casting a ballot was something that could get you in trouble.

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It turns out that the state of Texas considered me ineligible to vote because I was on federal supervised release because of a previous tax fraud conviction. But no one had ever told me I couldn’t vote. Not while I was in prison preparing to reenter society, and not while I was on supervised release.

I finished serving my original sentence right before the 2016 election. I was busy working hard to rebuild my life. I was enrolled in classes, working long hours to keep my home and watching my older children graduate from high school. Voting wasn’t really at the top of my mind at the time.

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But my granny, aunt and mother have always preached about civic responsibility, so on Election Day, we went to the same polling place we always went to. I was confused when I was told I wasn’t on the rolls, but a poll worker handed me a provisional ballot to fill out anyway and we went on our way.

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Little did I know, I had just caught myself in a storm of anti-voter panic. Following the election, the government aggressively went after cases of alleged voter fraud, even though there has never been any widespread evidence of it — either in Texas or nationally.

In fact, the main problems with voter fraud don’t come from regular citizens such as me. They come from people such as Russ Casey, Tarrant County’s now-former justice of the peace, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to forging signatures to get his name on the ballot during his reelection campaign. Casey would have benefited from the position’s power if he had gotten away with the fraud. Yet he was given just a slap on the wrist: five years of probation and no jail time.

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The people who pay the price are folks such as me who believed they were doing the right thing. It’s a life-altering price — a message our elected officials are trying to send to scare us away from the voting booth with harsh sentencing laws.

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Texas allows convicted felons to vote once they’ve completed their sentences, including any “parole or supervision.” But neither of those terms, as commonly understood under Texas law, applied to my case, and I was never told that Texas considered me ineligible to vote before participating in the 2016 election. Just recently, I received for the first time a form from my supervised release officer stating that I am not allowed to vote while on federal supervised release. When I saw that form, I started to cry.

Who knows whether the form was distributed because of my case. What I do know is that if I had been given that piece of paper from my supervised release officer back in 2016, I wouldn’t be fighting to keep my family together and to keep my job and home. At the very least, this new form might help another person avoid the pain I have gone through. But we are far from a just system, and there’s still work to be done.

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I never expected to be here as an advocate for voting rights. I had never been an activist before. But now that I know what the system can do to people, I have to use that knowledge to educate the next generation and to let them know what their rights are. I want to let them know that we can make a difference as a whole.

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That’s why when I had my welcome-home party after returning from prison this year (I had to serve extra time in federal prison because my illegal-voting conviction was considered a violation of the terms of my release), I had a voter-registration table there for younger adults. It was a party with a purpose. I see hope in the new up-and-coming generation. They’re loud, and they speak out about their rights. They’re making noise in a good way, because they know in their hearts that if our votes didn’t matter, the system wouldn’t be trying so hard to stop us.

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