Racism has been blamed for the dramatic disparity between a light sentence a white official received for knowingly turning in fake petition signatures compared with jail terms given two minority women in the same Texas county who say they didn’t know they were ineligible to vote.
Rosa Maria Ortega, a U.S. permanent resident in Tarrant County, Texas, illegally voted in 2012 and 2014. The result for the Hispanic woman was a felony charge, but she said she didn’t know that because she wasn’t a U.S. citizen she couldn’t vote. In 2017, a jury sentenced her to eight years in prison.
Crystal Mason, a black woman, said she voted in the 2016 election in Tarrant County, which includes Fort Worth, because her mom wanted her to. Charged with illegal voting, she said didn’t realize she was ineligible to vote because she was on supervised release from a felony conviction. In March, a state judge sentenced her to five years in prison. Mason, who is out of jail on an appellate bond, is asking for a new trial.
Russ Casey, a Tarrant County justice of the peace, turned in forged signatures to meet the threshold to get on the this year’s ballot for re-election. On Monday, Casey pleaded guilty to tampering with a government record, but his two-year prison sentence was suspended and he was put on five years of probation. He also was forced to resign his office, fined $1,000 and agreed to stay away from government buildings.
“The disparate treatment of these individuals is stark and clearly related to race,” Beth Stevens, voting rights program director at the Texas Civil Rights Project, told HuffPost. Casey was “a judge, and clearly should be held to a higher standard and engaged in actual active fraud.”
Concern about the differing treatment of the cases comes President Donald Trump has repeatedly complained about voter fraud, claiming ― without evidence ― that between 3 to 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election. While winning the electoral vote ― which determines who occupies the White House ― he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by about 2.8 million votes.
Lorraine Minnite, a political science professor at Rutgers University whose research focuses on voter fraud accusations, said it didn’t make sense that Casey got a significantly more lenient sentence when he was the only one of the three people who benefited from fraud.
“He didn’t do exactly the same thing [as Ortega and Mason], but you might argue that he did something worse,” she told HuffPost. “He was trying to personally benefit from the fraud. When voters make mistakes ― like these two women may have made, or were misinformed, didn’t understand what they were doing ― it’s hard to say that they personally benefited from that vote the way this man had if he won the subsequent election.”
The Tarrant County district attorney’s office has defended the different sentences by noting that Casey pleaded guilty while Ortega and Mason did not.
“He accepted accountability for what he did,” Matthew Smid, a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office, told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Clark Birdsall, Ortega’s lawyer, suggested that Trump’s comments about illegal votes swayed Wilson’s decision to prosecute his client and that she saw a chance to make an example out of an illegal voter.
He said that when District Attorney Sharen Wilson “was making her decision on how to handle Rosa Maria Ortega, she was following the current occupier of the White House; his lead in claiming the reason he lost the popular vote was due to 3 million illegal voters,” he told HuffPost.
Birdsall said Wilson’s office was unwilling to support a deal he negotiated with the state attorney’s general office to have the case against Ortega dismissed. He also speculated that the DA, who is white, may have had her office go easier on Casey “because he looks more like her.”
Samantha Jordan, a spokeswoman for the DA’s office, did not immediately respond to a HuffPost request for comment on the race issue. Earlier, she provided a document that said the office offered probation to Ortega and Mason in exchange for guilty pleas. But for various reasons, each defendant rejected those offers.
The document also noted that the office didn’t make sentencing recommendations in the Ortega or Mason cases, leaving it to a jury in one of them and a judge in the other to determine the punishment.
To Stevens, Ortega and Mason’s decision to maintain their innocence shouldn’t result in them getting the harsh sentences.
“Of course [Casey] pled guilty, they had him dead to rights on the fraud charge. He pled guilty to something that was going to give him probation,” she said. “We can’t ask people, with regard to the criminal justice system, to have to acknowledge guilt when they don’t believe that they’re guilty so that they can get the proper sentence.”
Minnite framed Ortega and Mason’s cases in simpler terms, questioning the point of tough prosecutions for two women who claimed they made a mistake and didn’t influence the outcome of an election.
“I don’t see how society is better because we threw those two women in jail,” she said.