A state appellate court has declined to overturn the conviction and five-year prison sentence of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman who cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while on supervised release for a federal conviction.
Mason’s case dates to 2016, when she submitted a provisional ballot for the 2016 presidential election on the advice of a poll worker. A month later, she learned that her ballot had been rejected, and a few months after that, she was arrested. Because she was on supervised release, prosecutors argued, she had knowingly violated a law that prohibits felons from voting before completing their sentences. Mason insisted she had no idea officials considered her ineligible — and would never have risked her freedom if she had.
Created in 2002, provisional ballots are meant to allow people to record their votes even amid questions about eligibility. Tens of thousands of provisional ballots are cast in large elections, and most are rejected.
In Tarrant County, where Mason lives, nearly 4,500 provisional ballots were cast in 2016, and 3,990 were rejected — but only she faced criminal prosecution. In fact, Mason’s lawyer told a three-judge panel in North Texas last September, hers is the first known instance of an individual facing criminal charges for casting a ballot that ultimately didn’t count.
“These are difficult times for me, but I have faith that with the help of my family and God, right will prevail,” Mason said in a statement released Friday by her lawyers. “A punishment of five years in jail for doing what I thought was my civic duty, and just as I was getting my family’s life together, is not simply unfair, it’s a tragedy.”
Prosecutors have insisted they’re not criminalizing individuals who merely vote by mistake and say that Mason’s case is about intent. Her conviction hinged on an affidavit she signed before casting her provisional ballot.
At her trial, the judge convicted her of voting illegally after a poll worker testified he had watched Mason read, and run her finger along, each line of an affidavit that required individuals to swear that “if a felon, I have completed all my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.” Mason said she did not read that side of the paper.
Mason was still under supervised release for a federal conviction. She was indicted in 2011 for helping clients at her tax preparation business falsify expenses and claim improper exemptions to lower their tax bills.
Her lawyers argue that the law is murky. Texas law allows convicted felons to vote once they’ve completed their “sentence,” including any “parole or supervision.” But it’s not clear that federal “supervised release” lines up with “supervision” under that law, Mason’s lawyers argue.
The three-judge panel did not see any ambiguity. “The fact that she did not know she was legally ineligible to vote was irrelevant to her prosecution,” Justice Wade Birdwell wrote in the court’s opinion. “The State needed only to prove that she voted while knowing of the existence of the condition that made her ineligible.”
“The decision to prosecute is, in most cases, beyond this court’s capacity to review,” the opinion said. “Likewise, ours is not to question an unambiguous statute’s wisdom but rather to apply it as written.”
In spite of being registered with the IRS as “churches,” these organizations and others like them don’t claim to be churches publicly. In fact, Gideons International – an association of businessmen and their wives who leave Bibles in hotel rooms – says on its website that it is neither a denomination nor a church. And yet, for tax purposes, Gideons claims to be a church.
Why would an already tax-exempt religious group want the government to treat it as a church? Because the rules governing churches are less strict.
As a professor who studies how tax laws affect churches and other tax-exempt organizations, I believe these groups overestimate the benefits their donors will receive if the groups are treated as churches. Even so, I’m concerned that groups taking this step are reducing the flow of valuable information about these organizations to the public.
Second, some of their donors can deduct their donations from their taxable income through the charitable deduction, creating an incentive to support those groups. While groups must be organized as nonprofits to qualify for the federal tax exemption, not every nonprofit is exempt.
Eligibility requires pursuing a specific purpose, such as religion, education or charity.
These organizations face obligations to maintain their exemptions, such as filing special paperwork with the IRS every year known as a Form 990. It requires disclosing some information, including who sits on its board of directors and the highest-paid employees. Tax-exempt groups also must share select financial information, including the value of their assets, their expenditures and their revenue.
As I explained in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, an academic publication, no tax-exempt organization had to file any documentation with the IRS for the first 30 years following the modern federal income tax’s inception in 1913. That changed in 1943, when Congress decided to make all of these groups except the religious ones – whether or not they function as churches – file of annual tax returns.
By 1969, in the wake of the discovery of a number of organizations abusing their tax exemptions, Congress had begun to feel like the government needed more information. That year, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have eliminated the filing exception for all religious organizations.
The House’s bill galvanized the religious community, which lobbied the Senate. Leaders like Ernest Wilkinson, the president of Brigham Young University, and the U.S. Catholic Conference argued against this legislation.
They claimed that the added paperwork would be burdensome and expensive for churches without generating additional tax dollars. They also asserted that disclosure was unnecessary because religious donors make charitable contributions based on religious obligations, not due to concern regarding the financial health of churches.
Ultimately, Congress split the proverbial baby. As of 1970, religious organizations were no longer exempt from filing 990 forms. The government did, however, exempt from this obligation churches, church associations and their “integrated auxiliaries” – that is, organizations associated with a church that receive financial support primarily from that church.
Today churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship remain free from the obligation to file the forms the IRS makes all other tax-exempt organizations submit.
Let’s be a church!
To decide whether something really is a church, at least for tax purposes, the IRS considers 14 criteria.
The criteria include the existence of a congregation, the occurrence of religious services and the ownership of property where people pray.
For instance, Focus on the Family allegedly claimed its cafeteria was an “established place of worship” because the group’s members occasionally pray there. It also changed the job titles of all 600 of its employees to “minister.” Those steps most likely fail to meet the standards that guided the IRS when it laid out its 14 criteria.
But the federal tax agency lacks the funding and staff it would need to verify these claims, leaving the IRS with a limited ability to challenge Focus on the Family’s assertions. (The group has told The Washington Post that its main reason to become a “church” for tax purposes was “to protect the confidentiality of our donors.”)
If the IRS recognizes a religious organization as a church, the public loses access to significant information. The public does not, however, lose any information about the organization’s donors, notwithstanding these groups’ stated goals in transitioning to churches.
Currently, tax-exempt groups required to file 990 forms must tell the IRS about their “substantial contributors” – basically, donors who give more than US$5,000 annually. But the IRS can’t release these donor lists to the public.
That is, becoming a church for tax purposes eliminates an obligation to file 990 forms, but this newfound opaqueness does nothing additional to shield donors from public scrutiny because donors never faced public scrutiny in the first place.
As long as churches don’t have to share their financial details with the IRS, religious groups will have an incentive to act like churches for tax purposes. But the incentive doesn’t have to exist. I believe that if Congress were to heed its 1969 goals and eliminate the filing exemption for churches, other religious organizations would not feel pressure to act like churches.
And society would get more access to the information it needs to oversee tax-exempt organizations.
When Tinslee Lewis turned 1 in early February, she spent her birthday with family by her bedside and hundreds of well-wishers on social media. But the infant was heavily sedated, her body swollen, partially paralyzed and hooked to the ventilator that has kept her alive for much of the past year.
Tinslee has never seen the outside of the intensive care unit of Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, and she may never get the chance. Tinslee’s doctors, who say continuing treatment is futile and causing her to suffer, want to take her off life support. But her mother, Trinity Lewis, is battling the hospital in court in a desperate fight for Tinslee’s life.
Lewis’ efforts have attracted the backing of conservative elected officials and a prominent anti-abortion organization. They have painted Tinslee’s case as a fundamental “right to life” issue in a legal battle to strike down a law that protects doctors’ right to deny “inappropriate” medical treatment.
Texas medical experts say conservative organizations and politicians are co-opting Tinslee’s case in an effort that is more about advancing a political agenda than it is about preserving a child’s life.
“This issue is about inflicting unnecessary pain on a patient. … It’s one of quality of life, and dignity,” said Jon Opelt, executive director of Texas Alliance for Patient Access, a medical interest group that is supporting Cook Children’s. He added that framing the issue as “pro-life” is misleading.
The staunch anti-abortion group Texas Right To Life has stepped in on behalf of the Lewis family, providing legal representation, funding attorney’s fees and handling public relations for the family as the case gains national attention. The group called the law at the center of the battle “unprecedented and unethical” while questioning its constitutionality.
Yet two decades ago, Texas Right to Life spent more than a year helping write that very law.
Born with a rare heart defect named Ebstein’s anomaly, a chronic lung disease and other medical conditions, Tinslee has undergone multiple open-heart surgeries since birth and required breathing assistance since July. Her physicians say she’s terminally ill.
After a major surgery in July failed to improve Tinslee’s condition, doctors began discussing the possibility of taking her off life support. Lewis firmly rejected ending her daughter’s care.
By September, the Lewis family and the hospital were at an impasse. Doctors requested that the hospital’s ethics committee review their decision to remove Tinslee’s ventilator — the first step in an end-of-life dispute resolution process outlined in a state law called the Texas Advance Directives Act.
Advance directives are legal documents that spell out a person’s wishes for end-of-life care. Patients like Tinslee, who are unable to decide their own medical treatment, must rely on family members.
Texas Right to Life helped the Lewis family sue the hospital, asking for courts to declare parts of the state law unconstitutional in an effort to prevent the hospital from ending treatment. Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott, both Republicans, threw their support behind the Lewis family, calling for judges to stop the doctors from taking Tinslee off of life support.
“Simply put, this case presents a life-or-death decision,” Abbott and Paxton said in a legal brief. “The issues raised by baby [Tinslee Lewis’] appeal are of the utmost importance not only to her and her family, but also to all Texans: the right to life and due process guaranteed by the United States and Texas Constitutions.”
A spokesman for Abbott’s office deferred to Paxton for comment on this story. Paxton did not respond to requests by The Texas Tribune to be interviewed.
Joe Pojman, director of Texas Alliance for Life, a more moderate anti-abortion group, took issue with the injection of politics into Tinslee’s case. Pojman’s group, along with other anti-abortion groups in the state, filed a brief in support of Cook Children’s Medical Center.
“We don’t think that’s a pro-life position — to advocate for prolonging a patient’s death through means that cause pain and suffering,” Pojman said. “If this law needs to be tweaked, that ought to be done by the Legislature.”
According to state law, when a family’s wishes and medical judgement clash, the hospital’s ethics committee reviews the doctor’s decision. If the committee sides with the doctor, the doctor has protection from liability; if it sides with the family, the physician can act as he or she chooses but will not be protected if the family decides to sue.
“No other state has that,” Pojman said, calling the process “absolutely unique.”
Pojman said if the law is struck down, doctors stand to lose their legal protection — a loss he said he fears would make hospitals much more unwilling to accept and treat terminally ill patients in the first place
“They are going to harm the patients they claim to want to protect,” Pojman said. “I think there are people who are trying to make political hay out of an issue that is not appropriate for politics.”
Much of the legal battle hinges on a hotly contested provision of the law that gives families 10 days to find facilities willing to take on the burden of a terminally ill patient, should a hospital decide against them.
Texas Right to Life vocally supported the rule in 1999. But the group later changed its mind and now says patients should have an unlimited amount of time to find a new hospital.
Texas Advance Directives Act
In the 1990s, the state’s anti-abortion coalition came together, determined to strike the right balance between a doctor’s medical authority and a patient’s wishes. They were concerned that the laws on the books gave doctors little incentive to continue treatment in terminal cases for fear of being sued.
Representatives from Texas Right to Life and Texas Alliance for Life, along with physicians, hospital associations and medical providers, spent more than a year debating new legislation. In 1999, the Texas Advance Directives Act emerged.
At the bill’s hearing before the House’s Public Health Committee, opposition was scarce. Joe Kral, legislative director for Texas Right to Life at the time, spoke at that hearing and asked for no revisions.
“We are really united behind this language,” Kral said at the time. “We worked hard and we found common ground. I’ll just ask everyone on this committee to always please respect this coalition. Because even though it’s strong where it’s strongly united behind this language, it is still fragile. Any kind of substantial change could cause it to fall apart, literally.”
1999 testimony from Right To Life’s Joe Kral at House Committee on Public Health
Kral said he left Texas Right to Life in 2003, citing a “difference of opinion.” But in an interview, he said the group’s insistence on dismantling the law it worked so hard to create is “mystifying.”
“There’s a reason why we aren’t seeing an influx of pro-life leaders rushing to their side on this issue,” Kral said. “I think a lot of them fundamentally understand you have to be consistent.”
Kimberlyn Schwartz, a Texas Right to Life spokeswoman, said last week that the group had apprehensions about the Texas Advance Directives Act even while it was being shaped.
Schwartz said Texas Right to Life leaders were misled at the time. Assured there would be more patient protections than there were, they had signed off on it. Once it passed, she said, the group realized how “dangerous” a law it was.
There’s a lot to the law that Texas Right to Life wants to change, Schwartz said, but the main focus is eliminating the “countdown” — the 10-day provision — and refusing any time limit on finding a new hospital for transfer.
“It is unethical to place a countdown on patients’ lives,” Schwartz said. “Only God has that power, to say when somebody is going to die. It should not be left to ethics committees.”
Questions about quality of life should not be decided by a hospital, Schwartz said. As for doctors’ and nurses’ concerns when prolonging treatment, Schwartz said, eliminating the 10-day deadline gives doctors more incentive to get patients transferred.
The family has already appealed to more than 20 hospitals to take Tinslee. All of them have said no.
“Tinslee is a fighter”
Tinslee is in near-constant pain and swollen from excess fluid, according to the hospital. Her nurses vigilantly monitor her bedside for fear that at any moment, her body will shut down.
At one point in the past year, Tinslee experienced what doctors called “dying events” several times a week, during which her oxygen levels plummeted and nurses rushed to manually inflate her lungs. These events, sometimes triggered by something as routine as a diaper change, were avoided only by increasing her sedation levels.
The Lewis family’s lawyers disagree on nearly all these points. According to their brief, Tinslee is not in pain, her condition is improving and she responds positively to her environment. Joe Nixon, one of the family’s attorneys, said Tinslee is responsive to cartoons and her mother painting her nails; the atmosphere in the hospital room is “happy and upbeat.”
“Those folks are ill,” Nixon said, referring to groups that have backed Cook Children’s Medical Center. “They have nothing to do with this family and they are poorly informed.”
Tinslee has health insurance through Texas Medicaid, which pays for her medical care, Nixon said.
Although Trinity Lewis won’t talk to reporters, Nixon said, she has been publishing statements to Texas Right to Life’s website. On Feb. 4, a few days after the latest court hearing, Lewis refuted “misinformation in the media” and wrote that it was her belief Tinslee was not suffering.
According to the blog post, the family’s ultimate goal is a tracheotomy and a transition to palliative care.
“A lot of the nurses that care for her tell me that they enjoy caring for her,” Lewis wrote. “They pray for Tinslee before their shift is over, they decorate her room, and help me take good care of her.”
For now, Tinslee’s case is tied up in an appeals court, which is expected to make a decision sometime in the upcoming weeks.
“Tinslee is a fighter,” Lewis wrote. “As long as she keeps responding to us and showing she is fighting, as her mom I will keep fighting for her.”
Vote suppression, vote manipulation, disenfranchisement, faulty voting machines — these and others are serious problems that threaten to undermine the electoral process in the United States.
While some legislators are attempting to crack down on alleged voter fraud by proposing stringent ID requirements, other lawmakers and grassroots citizen organizations are focusing their attention on the much greater problem of election fraud (intentional efforts to suppress or manipulate the vote) and irregularities (potentially hackable or malfunctioning electronic voting machines), as well as related problems like poorly trained poll workers and insufficient numbers of machines, paper ballots and provisional ballots at polling places.
One of the problems “clean vote” advocates have is convincing the public that the voting process can indeed be dirty. After all, there’s not a lot of distance between talk about election fraud and the latest conspiracy theory. Plus, we want to believe that ours is a pristine process — that every vote counts and that every vote is counted. The sad truth is that many votes go uncounted, and some votes are counted twice or more by electronic machines.
Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of these problems usually exists in poor and urban areas, the glaring exception being Florida’s ballot fiasco back in 2000. And one of the results of these problems is that we feel powerless to correct them, no matter where we live. How can we have faith in electronic machines when the precincts that buy them admit they don’t trust them to accurately count our votes? How can we fight back when we’re turned away at the polls because our photo ID doesn’t include the middle initial that appears on our voter registration, even though the rest of the information on the two documents is consistent? We can quickly get overwhelmed by both the big picture and the exact details.
The reality — and here’s the good news — is that we can each take steps to help ensure that our vote is counted. There’s no guarantee that it will be, but the more attention we pay to some of those details before and on Election Day, the greater the chances that our vote will be registered.
Here’s a checklist of action steps you can take now:
• Double-check now to make sure you are registered to vote. If you discover a problem that you cannot resolve with your local elections board (usually listed in the government pages of the local telephone directory), contact Election Protection at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (687-8683) for help.
• Find out now where your polling place is. It may have changed since the last time you voted.
• Find out exactly what forms of ID your state requires, and make sure everything is in order before Election Day. If you can, go to the appropriate website (usually the county’s board of elections or your state’s secretary of state), research the voter ID law and print the page to take with you on Election Day. Poll workers too often don’t know the law.
• Obtain a sample ballot. Some counties and precincts post sample ballots online. Call your local elections board to have one sent to you if you can’t get it online. As recent elections have shown, ballots can be confusing, and you don’t want to be caught off guard at the polls. Bear in mind, though, that not all jurisdictions provide sample ballots.
Here’s what you can do on Election Day (or earlier, if your state allows early voting):
• Request a paper ballot if one is available. Electronic machines are much too unreliable. Be sure you are not given a provisional ballot; these are used when a person’s voting status is in question, and they often go uncounted. If an electronic machine is your only option, check to see if you can obtain a paper copy of your vote. Some machines allow you to verify your vote on paper before you submit it electronically.
• Be vigilant. If anything strikes you as questionable, bring it to the attention of a poll worker — which may not do any good if the poll workers are part of the problem. (One example: In several New York City precincts in 2006, minority voters were asked for photo ID, which was not a requirement, while no such request was made of white voters.)
• Report any problems, even if they appear to be minor, to your local board of elections as soon as possible; if you have a cell phone, call from the polling place. You can also report it to Election Protection at the number given above and to any of the citizen organizations listed at the end of this article. If it’s serious enough and you haven’t received a satisfactory response from the election board, don’t hesitate to call your local media to notify them of the problem.
With 11 children shot just a few weeks ago in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on February 21 the expansion of a program to offer therapy, field trips and mentorship to young people deemed at high risk of experiencing gun violence and trauma.
Based on a pilot run last summer, the program promises a three-year investment, starting with $1.1 million this summer, to offer more than 2,000 young people emotional and social support.
Besides helping teens cope with the fallout of violence, the program also aims to convince them not to pick up a gun, or engage in conflict that could end in violence.
“If you’ve picked up a gun, you’ve picked up a ticking time bomb,” Lightfoot said at a press conference at Phillips High School in the Bronzeville neighborhood.
Chicago has a responsibility to help young people make good choices, the mayor said. “As a city, we have a fundamental obligation to ensure young people who are involved in gun violence have the resources and supports they need to get back on the right path.”
Young people in Chicago are disproportionately likely to be involved in gun violence — they are 11% of the city’s population, but make up 19% of homicide victims and 25% of homicide suspects.
Many of the victims, and those actively involved in violence, are likely to have attended an alternative school. In the four years through 2016-17, one-quarter of the 425 Chicago Public Schools students who died by violence had been attending those schools. While only 2% of district enrollment, alternative school students are disproportionately affected by violence in the city, according to a Chicago Reporter investigation.
The city’s new initiative will focus on alternative school students, schools chief Janice Jackson said at Friday’s press conference. The program also will serve students involved in the justice system, previously victimized by violence, or not on track to graduate on time.
A review by the University of Chicago Crime and Education Labs found that students involved in the pilot program had 32% fewer misconduct incidents in schools than the control group.
Even as the mayor pushed to involve young people in the program, known as Choose to Change, she acknowledged that they don’t control all the violence. Of last weekend’s shootings involving children, at least three were accidental.
“Adults, we have to be better,” Lightfoot said.
Speaking at the press conference, Acting Police Superintendent Charlie Beck said two adults were prosecuted over the weekend for endangering young people by allowing access to guns.
The mayor also acknowledged that efforts to end gun violence run up against intractable social problems.
“It’s an unfortunate fact that it is easier for them to get access to a handgun than to get a job, easier to handle things on the street than it is to get access to social-emotional support,” Lightfoot said.
If the summer program is any indication, the new program will provide some support for young people, but might not change the harsh reality they face each day.
Kayla, one of the students who participated in a six-week pilot program over the summer, said the program was a welcome respite but, like the rest of the students, she would return to communities that struggle with a lack of jobs and housing and an excess of violence.
“Y’all took kids that ain’t had nothing and gave them something,” she told Chalkbeat last summer. “It’s a positive thing, but it’s just for the moment.”