A Texas mother who’s been convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for illegally voting in recent elections has become a pawn in a political effort to find evidence of voter fraud, Sasha Samberg-Champion, a former senior lawyer at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, told The Globe Post on Thursday.
A Texas appeals court this week upheld the conviction of Rosa Maria Ortega – a legal permanent resident who was born in Mexico and brought into the United States by her mother when she was an infant – on two counts of illegal voting.
Ortega, a mother of four who has only a sixth grade education, has insisted that she didn’t understand that she was ineligible to vote and had no intention of breaking the law. Further, the appeals court acknowledged in it’s decision that Ortega was only allowed to vote because of a bureaucratic error.
Nonetheless, Ortega was prosecuted in 2017 to the full extent of the law and sentenced to eight years in prison and given $10,000 in fines. Experts say she will also likely face deportation after being released from prison, separating her from her children, who are citizens.
“This poor woman appears to be collateral damage in the right-wing quest to find evidence that there’s an epidemic of non-citizens fraudulently voting,” Samberg-Champion, who’s now a civil rights attorney at the Washington D.C.-based firm Relman, Dane & Colfax, said.
Rosa Maria Ortega's eight-year conviction for voting illegally has been upheld. Her sentencing was the harshest punishment for voter fraud since 2005, and a consequence of renewed concern about the issue. I spent time with her and her family last year: https://t.co/gKhLUr0f10
— Robert Samuels (@newsbysamuels) November 29, 2018
President Donald Trump has been vocal about his belief that voter fraud is a major issue facing U.S. elections and has been outspoken about the need for greater “voter integrity.”
Following his victory in the 2016 presidential election, Trump falsely claimed that three to five million illegal immigrants voted and established a now-defunct “Voter Integrity Commission” led by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
In a press release issued Tuesday, Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton boasted about the state’s successful prosecution of Ortega, echoing Trump’s rhetoric about voter integrity.
“This case underscores the importance that Texans place on the institution of voting, and the hallowed principle that every citizen’s vote must count,” Paxton said.
Before being disbanded, Trump’s voting integrity commission found no evidence of widespread illegal voting.
Despite the president’s focus on the issue, available academic studies have near-unanimously concluded that voter fraud is extremely rare and poses no threats to the integrity of American elections.
While illegal voting may have little to no impact on U.S. elections, Samberg-Champion said prosecutions like the one against Ortega are impactful and can discourage eligible people from voting.
“Whether this is their intent or not, such prosecutions will surely deter people who are legally permitted from voting,” he said.
In North Carolina, prosecutors charged 12 people with prior felony convictions – nine of whom are black – with voting illegally in the 2016 election.
One of those individuals, Taranta Holman, told the New York Times that he didn’t understand that his felony conviction disqualified him from voting and said that even if he becomes eligible in the future, he’ll never cast another vote again.
“Even when I get this cleared up, I still won’t vote. That’s too much of a risk,” he said.