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The Villages
Friday, May 13, 2022

Did Villagers get a better deal when it came to ‘punishment’ for voter fraud?

Marsha Shearer

On November, 2016, Crystal Mason drove to her polling place in Rendon, Texas to vote in the Presidential Election. According to multiple news sources and court testimony, (The Hill, ACLU, Wikipedia, ABC News, The New Yorker, Dallas News, Texas Tribune), a poll worker told Ms. Mason she wasn’t on the list of registered voters, but she could fill out a provisional ballot. Mason had always voted at this location in the past and she hadn’t changed her address, so she followed the poll worker’s instruction and filled out the ballot.

What she didn’t know was that she wasn’t eligible to vote. At the time, she was on federal supervised release after serving three years in prison for tax fraud. No one, including Mason’s probation officer, told her she wasn’t allowed to vote until after her supervised release was completed. In fact, the probation officer’s supervisor testified “that it was not a part of standard procedure to share that information. “That’s just not something we do,” he told the judge. The state contended that despite not being told she couldn’t vote, “Mason should have known” (Amrit Cheng, ACLU.org). Seriously. The prosecutor said that.

As part of her testimony Mason said, “I came back here and rehabilitated myself. I went to school and graduated. I have my own business now. Why would I dare jeopardize losing a good job, losing my house, and leaving my kids again and missing my son’s graduation…? I wouldn’t dare do that.”

This was a bench trial; there was no jury. The trial lasted one day. The judge found Crystal Mason guilty of “voting illegally” and sentenced her to five years in prison. Five years later and her case is still under appeal.

Fast forward to the 2020 Presidential election and the four voter fraud cases in The Villages. Given the seriousness of the crime and the continual rant by Republicans about rampant voter fraud, one would think the penalty for knowingly voting twice and pleading guilty would result in a penalty at least approximating that defined by law. One would think.

Florida, supposedly, does not take kindly to voter fraud. Florida statute 104.18 reads…whoever willfully votes more than one ballot at any election commits a felony of the third degree…”which could result in a prison term of no more than five years and/or a $5000 fine.” Two of the accused fraudsters admitted to voting twice (The New York Times, The Hill; villages-news.com). The other two are expected to follow suit. Here’s the punishment dealt out to these two men:

They will enter a pre-trial intervention program that requires they earn at least a C grade in an adult civics class that will meet two hours a week for 12 weeks. They will also pay $400 in court costs and complete community service. And guess what? If they complete these requirements, all criminal charges will be dropped. Or, to quote the forgiving Republican State Attorney Bill Gladson, “no criminal prosecution concerning this charge will be instituted in this county.”

There is little difference in the Texas and Florida laws when it comes to voter fraud. Both are felonies. Both provide a maximum sentence of five years in prison. But there is a big difference in what occurred. Ms. Mason did not actually vote in the 2016 election; hers was a provisional ballot and was not counted. The Villages Four knew they were voting twice and knew it was illegal. Their votes were counted. If “Justice is the Guardian of Liberty,” as engraved on the East side of the Supreme Court building, these individuals should have earned a stiffer sentence than sitting in an air conditioned classroom for two hours a week to learn something they already knew when they committed their crime – it’s illegal to vote twice in the same election. If they’re lucky, those two hours and community service won’t cut into their golf game. And when it’s all over, “no harm, no foul”… and no record. And perhaps, no shame.

So what could possibly account for the radical difference in sentences?  Here are some indicators from which you can draw your own conclusions:

• Given the comments Ms. Mason made, it’s highly likely that she marked her    provisional ballot for the Democratic presidential candidate. She is Black.

• Given their current voter registration (two Republicans and two NPA’s), it’s highly likely that Mr. Ketcik, Mr. Barnes, Ms. Halstead (shockingly, a former teacher) and Mr. Rider voted (twice) for the Republican presidential candidate. All four are white.

So here are the questions: Do you think Ms. Mason would have received a different sentence if she had been white and a registered Republican? And do you think the Villages Four would have gotten stiffer sentences had they been Black and registered Democrats?

That the answers to this question are so obvious is an insult to the legend inscribed on the West entry to the Supreme Court building: “Equal Justice Under Law.” These “sentences” don’t even come close. In the case of The Villages Four, is their “punishment” an example of unearned privilege, simply because of who they are?

Normally, the political party would not be an issue of privilege, but in Texas and Florida, and particularly in Sumter County, it’s a variable that likely makes a difference.

Consider this quote from Dwight Eisenhower: “A people that values its privileges above its principles, soon loses both.” That’s a lesson, it seems, some have yet to learn. To that end, perhaps as part of community service, these four might speak to The Villages High School civics class on justice and the law. What a valuable lesson that would be. For everyone.

Marsha Shearer is a resident of The Villages.

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