Earlier this month, the Texas 2nd Court of Appeals affirmed Rosa Maria Ortega’s eight-year prison sentence for illegal voting. Attorney General Ken Paxton celebrated the decision in a triumphant press release boasting of Ortega’s draconian punishment. But there is nothing just about the fact that Ortega may spend the next eight years languishing behind bars for unknowingly casting illegal ballots. To the contrary, her sentence is wildly out of proportion with her crime—the possible result of prosecutorial chicanery during closing arguments that has no place in a courtroom. And it’s yet another example of prosecutors using isolated cases of illegal voting to intimidate legitimate voters out of casting a ballot. Although Paxton has presented Ortega’s conduct as evidence that voter fraud is a genuine problem in Texas, her case bears no resemblance to the paranoid myth of immigrants covertly swinging elections. Ortega is a lawful permanent resident who was brought to the United States as a baby. She has a sixth-grade education and did not know that she could not legally vote.
In October 2014, she sent a voter-registration application to the Tarrant County Elections Administration, in which she indicated that she was not a citizen. When the office sent her a rejection letter, she called to ask why. An employee, Delores Stevens, explained that Ortega had checked the “No” box for citizenship and could not register unless she checked “Yes.” Ortega mailed in a new application, this time checking the “Yes” box to indicate U.S.
The office was fully aware of the discrepancies between her two applications. It still registered her to vote.
Shortly thereafter, the Texas attorney general received a tip that Ortega was voting illegally. An investigator with the attorney general’s office began to examine her case and discovered that she had voted in Dallas County in 2012 and 2014. Official paperwork revealed that Ortega presented her resident alien card and Social Security card to register, acknowledging that she was not a citizen. For some reason, Dallas County registered her anyway. (She registered as a Republican.)