The Small Lie
The Atlantic|January - February 2022
To support the Republican myth that our elections are rife with fraud, someone needs to take the fall.
By Vann R. Newkirk II, Photography by Yael Malka

When I met with Crystal Mason recently at her home in Rendon, Texas, we sat on a wide couch that served as the center of her domain, with plenty of space for children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces. Their photographs filled the house. Mason’s mother called to her from another room, needing advice; later, her eight-month-old grandson, Carter, joined us on the couch after waking up from an afternoon nap. For hours that day, Mason spoke candidly about the illegal-voting case that has consumed her life for half a decade. With us was one of her lawyers, Alison Grinter Allen.

If there is an individual in America who epitomizes one central aspect of our political moment, it might well be Crystal Mason. The story of Mason, a Black woman, illuminates the extraordinary efforts the Republican Party has made to demonstrate that fraud is being committed by minority voters on a massive scale. That false notion is now an article of faith among tens of millions of Americans. It has become an excuse to enact laws that make voting harder for everyone, but especially for voters of color, voters who are poor, voters who are old, and voters who were not born in the United States.

Mason watches the news diligently and can recount the details of prosecutions that have resulted thus far from the attack on the Capitol on January 6—an attack that was stoked by conspiracy theories about fraudulent voters. She can’t help but wonder about punishments meted out for the insurrection as compared with the one she has already received for, she says, unwittingly violating a Texas voting law. “These people,” Mason said of the participants in the January 6 assault, “came to do and commit dangerous crimes.” When she and I spoke, only two of them had been sentenced to jail or prison, and neither for more than eight months. Mason was sentenced to five years. She is currently out on bond while she appeals her conviction.

The idea that systemic fraud has subverted the democratic process demands a search for evidence of such fraud. The point of this effort is not merely to support spurious claims that Donald Trump won the 2020 election or to stockpile spurious arguments in advance of 2024. It is to lay a foundation for the resurgence of a specific form of Jim Crow–style disenfranchisement. Jim Crow relied on outright bans at the ballot box and threats of violence to ensure white political power. But eliminating the Black vote during that era was accomplished in subtler ways as well: by undermining community cohesion, by sapping time and energy, by sheer frustration. The modern effort relies on similar tactics. The so-called Big Lie is built on small lies, about the actions and intentions of individuals—the kinds of lies that can destroy lives and families.

CRYSTAL MASON’S ROLE in this story began during the 2016 presidential election. She was 41 and readjusting to life at home after serving most of a five-year sentence in federal prison for tax fraud. Mason had run a tax-preparation business with her then-husband and had been charged with inflating their clients’ refunds. Mason pleaded guilty and paid the penalty; after four years, a supervised-release program allowed her to return to her home. She has publicly “owned up,” as she has said, to her mistakes.

Mason has three adult children, and cares for other members of the family. She had been putting her life back together, working at a Santander bank in nearby Dallas and taking classes to become an aesthetician. Around this same time, Donald Trump was making his ascent: calling Mexican immigrants “rapists,” brandishing casual racism and xenophobia, and asking Black voters what the hell they had to lose by voting for him. Texas was not expected to be a swing state, but in this menacing atmosphere, Mason’s mother told Crystal it was her duty to vote.

On Election Day, Mason drove to her polling place, the Tabernacle Baptist Church. She was coming from work, and almost didn’t make it. “It was raining,” Mason told me, remembering the night. “It was right at 7 o’clock, when it was about to be closing up. I went with my name and my ID—who I was—to where I was supposed to go.” But a volunteer there, a 16-year-old neighbor of hers named Jarrod Streibich, couldn’t find her name on the rolls, which happens sometimes. Streibich suggested that she use a provisional ballot. “They offered it to me,” Mason recalled, “and I said, ‘What’s that?’ And they said, ‘Well, if we’re at the right location, it’ll count. If you’re not, it won’t.’ ” There was nothing particularly noteworthy about the interaction. Like tens of thousands of Texas voters, and millions of Americans across the country, Mason cast a provisional ballot, and went home.

Mason’s provisional ballot was destined to be rejected, however. Texas law requires all terms of any felony sentence to be completed before a person once again becomes eligible to vote, and Mason had not fully completed her sentence for the tax-fraud conviction. Mason says she didn’t know that ineligibility extended to the period of supervised release; she made a simple mistake. Many provisional ballots are rejected because of ineligibility, often for reasons potential voters are unaware of. Mason was sent a letter after the election stating that her provisional ballot had been disallowed.

By any reasonable measure, Mason’s experience at the polls amounted to a meaningless misunderstanding that had no effect on anything. Donald Trump carried Tarrant County, which includes Rendon, and all of Texas by a healthy margin on his way to winning the White House in 2016. Republicans in Texas retained control of most of the political system in the state. Trump was inaugurated in January. Mason continued her court- mandated check-ins with her supervision officer.

Without realizing it, however, Mason had become the subject of an investigation. After the polls closed, Streibich, the neighbor who had suggested that she use a provisional ballot in the first place, told an election judge on the scene—who was also a neighbor of Mason’s—something he had just remembered: that he thought Mason might still be on supervised release for a federal offense. The judge, Karl Dietrich, a local Republican Party official, informed the Tarrant County district attorney, Sharen Wilson. On February 16, 2017, Crystal Mason was arrested for illegal voting.

FEAR OF VOTER FRAUD, or at least the pretense of fear, has been a centerpiece of conservative objections to the expansion of voting rights going back, in the modern era, to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Taking steps to curb alleged illegal voting tends to boost Republican electoral fortunes by disenfranchising people of color.

In 2008, the increase in Black turnout that helped put Barack Obama in office—and raised hopes among Democrats for a “demographic revolution” that would aid their cause for years to come—gave voter suppression new urgency. Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder granted states more power to keep people from the polls. The decision effectively eliminated the system of pre-emptive federal oversight that had been in place since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In the absence of new legislation at the national level, state laws restricting the right or ability to vote could now be blocked only if courts found them to be discriminatory after their passage. In other words, governments could be elected under legal regimes that might ultimately prove to be unconstitutional; once in office, they would be free to further restrict voting.

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