A Texas mother of four legally in the United States is likely to be deported to Mexico after being sentenced to eight years in prison this week for illegally voting.
Rosa Maria Ortega, a legal permanent resident, was found guilty of illegally voting in the 2012 general election and the 2014 Republican primary. By law, only U.S. citizens can vote, but Ortega’s lawyer told The New York Times that she didn’t know she was ineligible.
“She has a sixth-grade education. She didn’t know she wasn’t legal,” Ortega’s lawyer, Clark Birdsall, told the Times. “She can own property; she can serve in the military; she can get a job; she can pay taxes. But she can’t vote, and she didn’t know that.”
Several investigations and studies have found voter fraud to be extremely rare, but President Donald Trump and other Republican elected officials have insisted that it has occurred. A strict voter identity law that Texas passed was struck down by a federal court last year, which found that it discriminated against black and Latino people who could not get the required documentation. Republican officials are predicted to seize on Ortega’s case to stoke fears about voter fraud to highlight why such restrictions are necessary.
Ortega’s punishment appeared to be unusually harsh because previous fraud cases that merited jail time usually involved people who intentionally tried to change an election’s outcome, the Times noted. Lawyers did not try and show that Ortega tried to sway the outcome of the election.
Birdsall told The Times that she was confused by a voter registration form in 2012 that didn’t have an option for permanent residents, so she checked a box indicating she was a citizen. She received a voter registration card, but when she moved to a different Texas county, she filled out another voter registration form and indicated she was not a citizen. Her application was rejected, but the registered Republican was persistent and called election officials to tell them she had successfully voted before. Prosecutors said she phoned to request another form and check that she was a citizen, the Star-Telegram reported.
It was her passion for voting that would lead to her criminal charges.
“She put herself here,” said assistant attorney general Jonathan White during closing arguments at Ortega’s trial this week, according to the Star-Telegram. “We would not be here today had she not picked up the phone and called [Tarrant County elections clerk] Delores Stevens. If she had taken no for an answer, all of this would have been swept away.”
Ortega, who has lived in the United States since she was an infant, is eligible for probation after two years, but she will be deported once her sentence is completed, Birtdsall told the Star-Telegram.
Her sentence Thursday comes as Trump has pledged a federal investigation into voter fraud, even though there is no evidence to suggest that it is widespread.
He insisted Thursday that he lost New Hampshire in the November election because of widespread fraud. Election officials in the state have said there’s no evidence that’s true.