Rosa Ortega does not deny she made a mistake. What she finds hard to accept is that her error should merit eight years in prison, almost certain deportation to a country she barely knows, separation from her children and notoriety in rightwing circles. “Send me back to Mexico. Get it over with,” she said in an interview with the Guardian on Friday, sitting behind a glass partition in the Tarrant County corrections centre in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. “I’m done, this is already too much, it’s too much and I’m just sitting there, sitting there, sitting there, and I don’t even sleep, I don’t sleep, I don’t do nothing here. On my mind, from day to night, is my kids.” Ortega was brought to the US from Mexico as a baby and lived legally in Texas as a permanent resident. While her green card entitled her to many of the same privileges as an American citizen, it did not confer the right to vote – yet vote she did, repeatedly, in elections in the Dallas area.
No one is claiming that she was the head of a conspiracy to undermine democracy, a mastermind who schemed to pervert the rightful outcome of elections. Ortega insists she was simply confused and voted as a result of misunderstandings compounded by the wording of registration forms, her sixth-grade education level and growing up as if she was a native-born Texan.
But her timing was terrible. She was found guilty of voter fraud and sentenced by a jury earlier this month, days after headlines sparked by Donald Trump’s spurious claim that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election. And the location was not ideal, either – a trial in a county where 52% of people backed Trump last November, in a Republican-dominated state where senior politicians have for years declared improper voting to be a serious problem, despite scant proof to back up their scaremongering.
Even when there is calculated misconduct such as casting multiple ballots in a single election, illegal voting is a crime that typically results in probation or a small amount of jail time. Or at least, it did. The otherwise law-abiding Ortega was handed two eight-year sentences, to run concurrently, on two charges relating to elections in 2012 and 2014. “Eight years, second-degree felony with a clean record, it’s sad,” she said. “Man, I’m just being set up, that’s what it is, just for an example.” The 37-year-old is awaiting transfer to a state prison.