Texas

8 Years in Prison for Voting Illegally Is Way Too Much

But not according Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

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Joyce Marshall/TNS/Newscom

A Texas woman with a middle school education lost her appeal of a voter fraud conviction this week. Rosa Maria Ortega, a green-card holder and mother of four who was charged with fraud for voting in the 2012 and 2014 elections, could spend eight years in prison and will almost certainly be deported afterward.

According to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), that's a good thing. "We will hold those accountable who falsely claim eligibility and purposely subvert the election process in Texas," he said in a statement released Tuesday.

But it appears Ortega wasn't trying to subvert the system. After her mother was deported when she was a teenager, Ortega committed to following the law. "When my mom was here, she did everything illegal," Ortega told The New York Times last year. "I wasn't going to let that happen to me."

While her schooling ended before she reached the eighth grade, Ortega was able to find work at a Texas employment office via the Job Corps program. She believed it was her duty as a U.S. resident to vote. When the voter application directed her to declare herself either a "citizen" or a "noncitizen," Ortega didn't quite understand how she was supposed to respond. "She doesn't know. She's got this [green] card that says 'resident' on it, so she doesn't mark that she's not a citizen," her defense attorney, Clark Birdsall, told The Washington Post last year. "She had no ulterior motive beyond what she thought, mistakenly, was her civic duty."

Ortega was arrested in 2015 for voter fraud. In February 2017, she was convicted of illegally voting in 2012 and 2014, and later sentenced by a Fort Worth judge to eight years behind bars. Moreover, Ortega's felony conviction meant she would likely be deported back to her native Mexico upon her release.

Despite her conviction and subsequent sentencing, Ortega didn't give up. In October 2017, she filed an appeal with the Texas 2nd Court of Appeals, providing two reasons why the conviction should be overturned. For one thing, she claimed the trial court allowed what should have been inadmissible evidence:

Without giving Appellant Miranda warnings, law enforcement questioned her and obtained multiple admissions to pointed incriminating questions in a recorded interview. Any of the multiple admissions regarding voting while her status was only legal permanent resident were sufficient, standing alone, to solidify probable cause. These circumstances caused a consensual encounter to transform into custodial interrogation, and the trial court abused its discretion by admitting the recorded, un-Mirandized, statements.

Ortega also argued the trial court "erred by allowing improper and inflammatory jury argument outside the record." At her sentencing, a prosecutor for the state had told the jury: "If you'd come back with a not guilty, can you imagine the floodgates that would be open to illegal voting in this county?"

But in a ruling dated November 21, the appeals court upheld her conviction. According to Justice Mark Pittman's memorandum opinion, Ortega's defense attorney said "no objection" when the state's prosecutor proposed using the transcript of Ortega's interview with investigators as evidence. Regarding the second argument, Pittman wrote that Ortega "did not raise her 'outside the record' ground in the trial court" and thus "did not preserve that part of her complaint," which she would have had to do in order for the appeals court to review her complaint.

"Because Appellant forfeited both issues by failing to preserve them in the trial court, we affirm the trial court's judgments," Pittman concluded.

In a statement yesterday, Paxton celebrated the appeals court's ruling. "This case underscores the importance that Texans place on the institution of voting, and the hallowed principle that every citizen's vote must count," he said.

But Paxton's statement ignores the reality of the situation. A woman is heading to prison and will likely be deported once she's released for doing something she says she felt obligated to do, and that had no impact on anyone other than herself. Additionally, she had no co-conspirators and was not engaged in any other form of criminality. While ignorance of the law is no excuse, it's also not grounds for the state to ruin a person's life.

Ortega admitted that she's been voting illegally since 2004ā€”five times in total, according to Paxton. In 2012 and 2014, she voted in Dallas County after claiming to be a citizen on her registration form. She later moved to Tarrant County and attempted to register as a noncitizen in October 2014. Her application was rejected, so she tried again in March 2015, this time checking the "citizen" box. According to Paxton's statement, "at the same time Ortega falsely claimed to be a U.S. citizen for the purposes of voting, she correctly informed the authorities that she was a resident alien in order to obtain a driver's license. That evidence negated Ortega's claim that she made an innocent mistake."

Paxton's press release also claimed Ortega refused the state's offer of "two years community supervision" with no prison time, instead opting for a jury trial. It's possible he was referring to a plea bargain he was reportedly ready to offer Ortega. As the Times reported last year:

Mr. Birdsall said Mr. Paxton's office had been prepared to dismiss all charges against Ms. Ortega if she agreed to testify on voting procedures before the Texas Legislature. But the Tarrant County criminal district attorney, Sharen Wilson, vetoed that deal, he said, insisting on a trial that would showcase her office's efforts to crack down on election fraud.

Ortega, in other words, may not have a choice to plea down, and even if she had, it is heinous to punish any person explicitly for exercising their constitutional right to a trial.

Ortega is not the only illegal voter in Tarrant County to have the book thrown at her. In March, Reason's Scott Shackford wrote about Crytsal Mason, a convicted felon who voted while on supervised release. She didn't even know this was against the law, but got slapped with a five-year prison sentence anyway. "This only happens in Tarrant County," Mason's attorney, Alison Grinter, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

As Shackford pointed out, cases like these are the result of hysteria over supposed widespread voter fraud. In reality, there's little evidence to suggest voter fraud is a major problem that affects final election results. But the hysteria means people like Ortega and Mason are punished like violent criminals.

Paxton's statement notes that "under Texas parole law for this type of offense," Ortega could be released within a year. Even if she's released after a year, and is by some miracle not deported, the pain she and her family will endure far exceeds the harm she caused the state of Texas with five illegal votes.

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81 responses to “8 Years in Prison for Voting Illegally Is Way Too Much

  1. According to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), that’s a good thing. “We will hold those accountable who falsely claim eligibility and purposely subvert the election process in Texas,” he said in a statement released Tuesday.

    You have a living example that voter fraud is real. Instead of taking the PR win, you’ve made the fraudster a sympathetic victim. Prosecutors from either party are stupid idiots and usually slimy as hell to boot.

    1. Not just voter fraud, subverting the election process. You know, like the way the Dems and the Reps keep third-party candidates locked in the basement so nobody can hear their screams.

      1. Some episodes of the Freakonomics podcast are pretty good.

        This is a good one is about this subject, although I’m not sure why they call the duopoly “hidden.”

        America’s Hidden Duopoly

        We all know our political system is “broken” ? but what if that’s not true? Some say the Republicans and Democrats constitute a wildly successful industry that has colluded to kill off competition, stifle reform, and drive the country apart. So what are you going to do about it?

        1. Oh, I’ll add that these people tend to be very good at spotting problems, but the solutions they offer are almost always garbage. In this episode some lady says has some kind of electoral reform “trifecta” (misuse of the term), which includes things like ranked choice voting and open primaries. I’m not sure why she thinks those things will lead to more diverse political outcomes or loosen the grip of the duopoly. They won’t have nearly the impact she’s imagining.

          1. Couldn’t have said it better myself Juice in re: good at identifying problems, terrible on solutions. That’s pretty much almost always the case with Freakonomics.

            1. The hard part is identifying the problem so kudos to them for that.

      2. Address this injustice instead of saying that there is no illegal voting.

    2. This woman was late to this ‘there is actually an example of wrongful voting’ party by at least 10 years.

      Did bigoted wingnuts push for an eight-year term of imprisonment for Ann Coulter?

      1. Pastor Arthur Kirkland is a lot more fun than you are šŸ™

      2. Did Ann Coulter subvert the election system by voting while not a citizen? If not you are talking about apples and oranges. Not the same thing.

        1. What election fraud did Coulter perpetrate? I don’t recall hearing anything.

        2. And what of Trump? The candidate violated criminal campaign finance laws to prevent damaging information from coming to light. The people were deprived of a chance to make a more informed decision. The damage done through that criminal conspiracy is so much greater than one vote. Not to mention Trump’s conspiracy to give the Russians sanction relief for their support.

          1. Oh, but Trump is native-born, NOT an illegal or semi-legal sub-human, PLUS he is on the “R” team, PLUS he has orange hair, so we MUST let him slide!

      3. Did bigoted wingnuts push for an eight-year term of imprisonment for Ann Coulter?

        Why should we have pushed for that? Coulter was investigated and the state found no evidence of illegal voting.

    3. And yet, the Brenda Snipes of the world roam free.

    4. The reality is that voter fraud (some nobody who doesn’t personally benefit violating some law) is nothing compared to party/activist (deliberate violation of said law for some personal benefit) fraud.

      Just in Texas, some of the recent cases include a postal worker bribed by a paid campaign worker for list of mail-in ballot recipients on his route. The mailman gets 18 months – the campaign worker isn’t charged. Or a candidate and their flunky who together alter 30 absentee ballots in an election decided by 16 votes. They do get caught cuz of that but golly – the flunky gets 2 yrs probation, the candidate get 1 yr probation. ALWAYS the same.

      The nobodies get nailed to the cross. The orchestrators/beneficiaries get near nothing – cuz even when that prosecution can be spun for partisan advantage, both parties know that what goes around comes around and they are as guilty as the other. So go easy on them. And hit the nobody hard to send a message about how ‘serious’ this all is.

      1. Quite glad to see so many reasonable prosecutors in this country.

      2. Attack the injustice then.

      3. In California the reversal of, well, basically every Republican House win on election day, was accomplished thanks to “vote harvesting”, which California recently legalized.

        Vote harvesting happens to be a key step in absentee ballot fraud, which is exactly why it’s illegal most places. Seriously, it’s like getting rid of ballot secrecy: You don’t do it except to facilitate ballot fraud.

  2. So foreigners interfering in US elections is not thy he most terrible thing in the world?

  3. Wait’ll they find out she voted Republican!

    1. If she can demonstrate that she voted for Republicans, she could ask for the “Ann Coulter treatment.”

      1. I imagine that as being given a cheap hair bleaching and then being put on the rack and stretched 25% longer and thinner than she was before.

  4. Yes, eight years is too much but you can’t just let this slide.

    Reading the article it seems like there was no malice, but she still did it.

    So something has to happen to her.

    Maybe just pack her up and send her to Mexico now, instead of spending the money to keep her in prison.

    1. Exactly that (Your last sentence).

    2. Why, so she can turn around and re-enter the country in a month?

    3. Reading the article it seems like there was no malice, but she still did it.

      I don’t know how you can vote illegally with “malice”; she certainly had intent.

  5. >>>voter fraud is a major problem that affects final election results

    the new qualifier at the end is cute. also 1960 called – said the dead have risen and are voting Kennedy?

  6. She tried to register to vote as a resident alien and was rejected, and then put she was a citizen to get accepted.

    Either she is lying or is appallingly ignorant and perhaps mentally incapable if she did not understand why she was rejected or did not have someone explain to her why she was rejected.

    Furthermore, it shows how lax the voter registration system is if it did not catch someone who was rejected trying to register again by simply claiming to be a citizen.

  7. Maybe we could, I don’t know, make it harder to commit this crime in the first place?

    1. How about a nice photo id requirement? You know, a drivers license that shows immigration/citizenship status?
      That is no more difficult to acquire than a permit to exercise other constitutional rights; say the second amendment?
      Yet one is voter suppression for racist reasons only, the other is reasonable gun safety.

      1. How about a nice photo id requirement? You know, a drivers license that shows immigration/citizenship status?

        Democrats should love it, because it’s what all civilized and advanced nations do.

  8. “She had no ulterior motive beyond what she thought, mistakenly, was her civic duty.”

    Her dog ate her notes for that part of the US citizenship civics test so she couldn’t study for it. But we should pass her anyway.

    1. Her only crime was being too virtuous.

  9. If Paxton thinks 8 years is about right for voting illegally, wonder what he thinks the proper penalty ought to be for securities fraud…..

  10. Maybe the Reason writers think illegal immigrants aren’t technically stealing votes since they tell us not not to vote anyway. It’s like stealing an apple out of the trash. Do you want that vote to just go to waste?

    1. The woman in this case wasn’t an illegal immigrant. She had legal resident alien status.

      1. My wife was a legal resident alien until she got naturalized last year. I seriously do not believe this lady was unaware she couldn’t legally vote, they make it quite clear to you.

  11. “It’s possible he was referring to a plea bargain he was reportedly ready to offer Ortega.”

    Is it possible, but is it true? The terms described are significantly different, so it is also possible that a separate deal was offered and rejected by the defense. Did you contact any of the parties involved to attempt to figure out what happened?

  12. I think eight years is too long. I hate when prosecutors use excessive punishment to send a message. I think deportation is harsh enough, especially in the current environment.

    The lack of evidence for voter fraud is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. The studies done on voter fraud in the US are great studies in circular logic. I don’t know how much fraud is actually committed, but the protections in place are hardly better than the honor system.

    1. Ortega admitted that she’s been voting illegally since 2004?five times in total

      So about a year and a half per crime – not reasonable? She qualifies as a career criminal in many states.

      And yet, the simple requirement of an id check would have prevented her from committing the first violation.
      A reasonably competent registrar would have explained the citizenship question if she had asked. Not having a green card I do not know if the relationship to citizenship is part of that process, but I suspect it is.

  13. As white, backward west Texas empties, and Houston and Dallas join Austin as growing, modern, diverse, and successful cities, Texas Republicans will lose their opportunity to impose a right-wing, white nationalist agenda.

    Add modernization to barbeque, Tex-Mex food, and Austin’s music community and you might the have the foundation of a place where educated, successful professionals wish to live.

    1. Have you ever been to West Texas? There’s already nobody out there, never has been. And Texas, the second most populous state, has exactly zero educated, successful professionals.

      If you’re going to troll, you could at least try to be moderately intelligent about it.

      1. I lived in Austin for a year, journeyed west twice. Flat, brown, dry, and full of yahoos.

        Texas has an increasing population of modern, successful, skilled, educated citizens. Sen. Cornyn was publicly lamenting that point today.

        1. I lived in Austin for a year, journeyed west twice. Flat, brown, dry, and full of yahoos.

          You fit right in then!

          Texas has an increasing population of modern, successful, skilled, educated citizens.

          In other words: people very much unlike you.

  14. Somewhere, Kris Kobach is masturbating furiously while grinning at a printout of the newspaper account of this prosecution.

  15. Too much? Perhaps not enough. Examples need to made of people that interfere in elections illegally.

  16. 8 years doesn’t sound like too much when the entire federal law enforcement and intelligence operations are working with a specially anointed prosecutor to overturn the last presidential election because some alleged Russians allegedly posted some stuff on the internet.

  17. 8 years is indeed too much, never mind the criminal’s supposedly pure motives.

  18. Maybe just the stupid ones gets caught. We will never know because it is to expensive to check every voter and ballot in every election. But there needs to be an easier way to be able to do a spot check much easier and quickly so that it could be done often just to keep elections honest.

    1. That begs the question. Why is it hard to distinguish citizen SSNs from non?

      1. Identity theft protections?
        SSN not being a part of registering to vote?

      2. The SS administration is run by people who don’t want to get in the way of illegal aliens working, I suppose they might be equally casual about legal aliens voting.

  19. I have a better idea. Modernize our voter registration system so that it isn’t dependent upon the honesty of the registrants.

    Then her registration would’ve been rejected before she voted with no harm and no foul.

    Cross reference voter registration SSN with addresses from the most recent tax filing. Done.

    1. Modernize our voter registration system so that it isn’t dependent upon the honesty of the registrants.

      And then fix the tax collection system!

    2. Assuming all citizens make enough to pay taxes?
      Some US citizens do not earn enough to pay taxes. You know, retirees, the disabled, etc.
      I haven’t had to pay taxes since I retired.

      1. Assuming all citizens make enough to pay taxes? Some US citizens do not earn enough to pay taxes. You know, retirees, the disabled, etc.

        We should do what advanced European nations do: 35% total income tax on median income earners (as opposed to the 25% Americans pay now), and income taxes all the way down to the poverty line. Get rid of EIC while we’re at it.

  20. I have another question. Who is teaching people that every RESIDENT should vote? How about we deport that person instead?

    1. A Texas woman with a middle school education lost her appeal of a voter fraud conviction this week.

      If only she’d had a high-school civics course she would have known all about citizenship and voting!

      1. Public education in Mexico ends in the 8th grade (i.e. middle school). High school is private and parents have to pay for children to attend.

  21. I thought Libertarians were supposed to believe in the Rule of Law? This once great publication has devolved into Liberal trash!

    The Law is the Law, and this lawbreaker repeatedly and knowingly broke the Law, so she deserves this punishment. If you can’t do the Crime don’t do the Time!

    1. Well, they like the law up to a point.

      That point being, anything that interferes with absolutely open borders!! This is now the single, sole and only issue of any interest to REASON staff. Sure, they do articles on other things, sometimes even things having to do with “free minds and free markets”, but the one that gets them back pats, twitter likes and Internet peepee touches is the one they share with the rest of the mass media.

      The demise of national identity has certainly become very important to some very powerful people, hasn’t it? Used to be you could count on REASON to be contrarian on any such issue, running it through the filter of libertarian principal. Lately, there seem to be bigger fish to fry for people who put out the magazine.

  22. Here’s an idea. Trump should pardon the woman and use her predicament to again push for voter I.D. so this kind of error doesn’t happen to another non-citizen resident.

    1. That would require that Trump be able to see past the end of his mushroom. Not going to happen.

    2. The President can’t pardon for state crimes, only federal ones.

  23. How do you punish the dead people who vote? Locking them up seems counterproductive: it just makes the jail smell really bad.

  24. Closed the Reason site earlier today in a test, opened one earlier (I think), closed and reopened now.
    My desktop has been freezing with the note of some ‘non-responsive script’, and it usually takes manually powering off the computer, restarting, using the shut-down tab to close it, and then starting again to get it working properly. Fortunately, I tend to hit Ctrl-s often.
    Now, it is no surprise to those of us who visit here that the Reason web site is among the crummiest most all of us have ever used: Think you’re clicking on that story? Ha and ha! The server (Radio Shack, 1989!) is a little slow and you just clicking on a site that is trying to direct you to a Liberian Prince who…(that Radio Shack server really isn’t very secure, nor is the Reason site).
    So, by leaving Reason closed all day, I did not once have to power off and re-start.
    Hey Reason! Here’s your contribution: Phbbph!

    1. Try a different browser.

      1. My response to you was just eaten by Reason’s pathetic

        1. Fuck you, Reason…

          1. And here’s my contrtibuti

    2. NoScript is your friend.

      1. No it’s not, it’s obtrusive and a pain in the ass. Ublock origin gets you 95% of the way there and it doesn’t bug the shit out of you.

    3. get an ad blocker ublock origin is the best one. I like reason, but they should be using self hosted ads, not these 3rd party ads that can upload shitty javascript to your browser and break it.

  25. Now imagine she’s Russian! Hysteria ensues.

  26. Why? She broke the law 5 times. She knew she was not a US citizen but a resident alien. The form says ARE YOU A U.S. CITIZEN?. If you have a green card, you are NOT a US citizen. Besides, as with any non violent crime, prisoners in Texas only serve 1/3 of their sentence before they are eligible for parole, which in this case is 2 years and 8 months. Take off time for good behavior and time already served, and she will likely only serve about 2 years max. Each time she voted was a criminal act. She committed 5 criminal acts and was offered a plea deal which she rejected. Sorry, but her sentence is her fault and 2 years is not much for the commission of 5 crimes.

    1. But…but…muh feelz!!

  27. Waste of money, excessive punishment, and general fucking judicial stupidity. She should have gotten a few months in jail and community service, maybe 1 year probation.

  28. “She later moved to Tarrant County and attempted to register as a noncitizen in October 2014. Her application was rejected, so she tried again in March 2015, this time checking the “citizen” box.”

    So, she was on notice that it wasn’t legal for her to vote, and fraudulently claimed citizenship in order to do so anyway.

    “Ortega is not the only illegal voter in Tarrant County to have the book thrown at her. In March, Reason’s Scott Shackford wrote about Crytsal Mason, a convicted felon who voted while on supervised release. She didn’t even know this was against the law, but got slapped with a five-year prison sentence anyway.”

    Yeah, I remember the case. It was pretty clear that she knew what she was doing, too.

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