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Houston Chronicle: Texas’ confusing voting laws shouldn’t land people in prison [Opinion]

This story was originally published by the Houston Chronicle.

Three years ago, Crystal Mason-Hobbs submitted a provisional ballot in the 2016 election that was not counted. As a citizen returning to her community, she assumed her voting rights had been restored when she was released from prison. But she was still on federal supervised release, so the state of Texas argued that she was ineligible to vote and had voted illegally.

For trying to fulfill her civic duty, Mason-Hobbs was sentenced to five years in prison. Her conviction has already turned her life and that of her family upside down. She is now challenging her conviction on appeal, and we have submitted a brief asking the court to fix this grave injustice.

When you look at our voting laws in Texas, it’s hard to make a case that they are meant to protect voters. The laws that govern voting are often archaic or ambiguous. The burden to follow the rules is placed on the individual voter and not the officials enforcing them.

I’m president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, whose mission is empowering voters and defending democracy. League members encounter the formerly incarcerated who do not realize that in Texas, once they have completed their sentence and paid any associated fines, they automatically regain the right to vote. When those individuals learn they are eligible, League volunteer deputy registrars provide them the registration form to complete. It signals they are once again a valued member of society. Often, both the volunteer and the registrant end up in tears of happiness.

Crystal, however, paid the price for the ambiguities in our voting system. Crystal was not under parole or probation, but instead on federal supervised release. She had no idea that Texas considered her ineligible and would charge her with illegal voting. At the polling place, she was directed to cast a provisional ballot that wasn’t even counted — but then was charged with breaking the law for doing so. Why add such a cruel and disproportionate penalty on top of that?

When Senate Bill 9 began making its way through the Texas Legislature this spring, the League mobilized supporters against what would have been the most damaging Texas legislation for voting rights that we’ve seen yet. One of the most egregious provisions in that bill was the criminalization of unintended mistakes by voters or those providing voting assistance.

Why on earth does our state insist on imprisonment as a punishment for voting mistakes?

The answer can be seen in the false accusations of noncitizen voting and the further complication of the voting process. It’s voter suppression, plain and simple.

Earlier this year, then-Texas Secretary of State David Whitley made unfounded accusations that tens of thousands of noncitizens were voting in recent Texas elections. Whitley relied on flawed data in an attempt to widely purge naturalized citizens from the Texas state voter rolls. The League joined a lawsuit asking the federal court to declare these actions unconstitutional and a violation of the Voting Rights Act, which it did.

The goal of these tactics — jail time for voting mistakes, purging eligible voters, restrictive voter photo ID, cutting early voting days and times, cutting polling locations — is to depress voter participation, especially among vulnerable and underrepresented populations. Especially among people such as Crystal Mason-Hobbs.

Texas isn’t alone in this. Over the last decade, states across the country have enacted a seemingly endless batch of new voting restrictions. Strict voter photo ID laws were implemented in states such as Kansas, Tennessee, Virginia and North Dakota. Polling places were closed and early voting days cut in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and West Virginia.

Tuesday marks 54 years since the Voting Rights Act was originally signed, with the stated goal to protect voters and guarantee access at the polls for all eligible Americans. But since the Supreme Court rolled back protections in the VRA in 2013, we have seen more and more of these voter suppression tactics employed to limit participation in elections.

These attacks on voters are a step in the wrong direction for our democracy. They move us further away from forming a more perfect union. Democracy works only if the people have the power to participate in a meaningful way.

We can’t stand by and let vote suppressors run our elections. That’s why the League of Women Voters of Texas filed an amicus brief in support of Mason-Hobbs, and it’s why we’ll continue to fight any law that seeks to keep Texans from exercising their voice.

Grace Chimene is president of the League of Women Voters of Texas.