Despite repeated statements by Republican political leaders that American elections are rife with illegal voting, credible reports of fraud have been hard to find and convictions rarer still. That may help explain the unusually heavy penalty imposed on Rosa Maria Ortega, 37, a permanent resident and a mother of four who lives outside Dallas. On Thursday, a Fort Worth judge sentenced her to eight years in prison — and almost certainly deportation later — after she voted illegally in elections in 2012 and 2014. The sentence for Ms. Ortega, who was brought to this country by her mother as an infant, “shows how serious Texas is about keeping its elections secure,” Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, said in a statement. Her lawyer called it an egregious overreaction, made to score political points, against someone who wrongly believed she was eligible to vote. “She has a sixth-grade education. She didn’t know she wasn’t legal,” said Ms. Ortega’s lawyer, Clark Birdsall, who once oversaw voter fraud prosecutions in neighboring Dallas County. “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.”
The punishment was strikingly harsh for an offense that usually merits far less jail time, if any. A second fraudulent ballot case in metropolitan Fort Worth ended in 2015 with probation.
Ms. Ortega insisted in court that she had been unaware that she was ineligible to vote and was confused by registration forms and explanations by election officials. Prosecutors for Mr. Paxton and Tarrant County said that she had lied and that the same forms and conversations proved it. A jury convicted her Wednesday of two felony charges.
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.