Protecting the right to vote
Illegal voting undermines representative government
Ajury of 10 women and two men in Tarrant County, Texas, found Rosa Ortega guilty of voting illegally and sentenced her to eight years in jail. That simple truth — that ordinary women and men sentenced Ortega — is too often omitted in false narratives that minimize the importance of election integrity, like The Washington Post’s recent misleading editorial on this case. Of course, that publication passed on this piece which factually corrects its own.
The jurors who decided Ortega’s fate based their decision on the facts. The prosecutors proved that at the same time that Ortega falsely claimed to be a citizen for the purposes of voting, she correctly informed the authorities that she was a resident alien in order to obtain a drivers’ license. This devastating piece of evidence, which prosecutors introduced at trial, laid waste to the claim that Ortega made an innocent mistake.
The prosecutors also proved that Ortega illegally registered to vote in 2002, and voted illegally in 2004, 2005, and 2010. And they established that when Ortega moved in 2014, and correctly indicated she was not a U.S. citizen on her voting registration form, the county informed her in writing that she was ineligible to vote. Nevertheless, Ortega applied to vote again, insisting this time that she was, in fact, a U.S. Citizen.
Despite the evidence that Ortega had been voting illegally for more than 10 years, the State of Texas offered her the minimum punishment available for the offense, two years community supervision — no prison, no jail, no special conditions. Instead, Ortega voluntarily chose to gamble on a jury trial.
Working together, prosecutors from the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office showed at trial that Ortega knowingly made false statements about her citizenship in order to vote illegally five times between 2004 and 2014. After proving their case, the prosecutors did not recommend a specific term of prison time. Instead they left Ortega’s sentence in the hands of the jurors — the same 10 women and two men who weighed the evidence presented during the four-day trial.
The judge instructed the jurors that the offense range for the type of offense Ortega committed — a second-degree felony — spanned from 2 to 20 years of jail time, or up to 10 years of probation. The court also read the standard jury instruction advising that early release through parole was available, though the jurors could not speculate or deliberate on what the actual time served would be.
The jurors returned a sentence that is in line with the punishments for other second-degree offenses, a category that includes violent offenses such as manslaughter, aggravated assault, and sexual assault. But well-established guidelines in Texas allow for early release of non-violent offenders like Ortega — another fact that has been left out of many news accounts. Ortega will be eligible for parole after serving around 11 months of her sentence.
Nevertheless, the 8-year sentence sends a powerful message that ordinary citizens, like the 10 women and two men who found Ortega guilty, hold voting rights dear. The outcome demonstrates that individuals who violate election laws in Texas will be held accountable for the injury that they inflict on all voters by diluting the legitimate power of lawfully-cast ballots. In a majority-rule democracy like ours, protecting the electorate ensures political legitimacy. As President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State James Baker said in the 2005 bipartisan commission report on federal election reform: “The electoral system cannot inspire public confidence if no safeguards exist to deter or detect fraud or to confirm the identity of voters.”
The Texas Attorney General’s Office is committed to serving law-abiding citizens who understand that securing the integrity of our elections is essential to preserving our democracy. Our office is currently investigating more 50 cases of alleged voting misconduct. Six of those investigations stem from the most recent federal election. Indeed, in recent months, our office has received a record number of referrals from local prosecutors of alleged voting misconduct. The trend suggests a significant increase in voter fraud.
The mainstream media is too often out of touch with the everyday issues that concern ordinary people: from ensuring there are enough good jobs to protecting our streets and schools. The contempt for those who want to safeguard a legal voting system is just another example of the refusal of our elites to confront basic realities that communities across Texas and elsewhere widely accept. Regardless of the exact number of voting misconduct cases, patriotic citizens such as the jurors in the Ortega case should not be ridiculed for protecting the very fabric of representative government — the right to vote.