Prison sought for Arizona official in ballot harvesting case
YUMA, Ariz. (AP) — Prosecutors are seeking a one-year prison sentence for a school board member in southern Arizona for illegally collecting four early ballots during the 2020 primary election.
But if probation is imposed instead, prosecutors said the judge should then enforce a provision of Guillermina Fuentes’ plea deal that bars her from holding public office while on probation. Fuentes and another woman, Alma Juarez, were scheduled to be sentenced Thursday on a ballot abuse conviction in Yuma, but the hearing has been postponed until Sept. 1.
Authorities say Fuentes and Juarez participated in “ballot harvesting.” That’s a practice once used by both political parties to boost turnout but was made illegal by a 2016 state law that barred anyone but a family member or caregiver from returning early ballots for another person. It’s the only case filed so far by the state attorney general under the law, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld last year.
Authorities say Fuentes, a former San Luis mayor, ran a sophisticated operation using her status in Democratic politics in the Arizona border city to persuade voters to let her gather and, in some cases, fill out their ballots. But the crime she admitted in court last month does not involve filling out ballots or any broader efforts.
In a court filing Wednesday, prosecutors said Fuentes “appears to have been caught on video running a modern-day political machine seeking to influence the outcome of the municipal election in San Luis, collecting votes through illegal methods, and then using another person to bring the ballots the last few yards into the ballot box.”
In a statement, Anne Chapman, an attorney representing Fuentes, said her client had requested a hearing before her sentencing to present mitigating evidence because the request for her to serve a year in prison was clearly excessive. Chapman also said the filing by prosecutors is based largely on reports from Fuentes’ longtime political opponents and that none of the allegations in the document have been “evaluated or tested through appropriate processes.”
Fuentes and Juarez each pleaded guilty to a charge of ballot abuse, acknowledging they collected early ballots for people who weren’t family members, didn’t live with them or weren’t receiving care from them.
Fuentes’ conviction is a felony punishable by as little as probation or as much as two years in prison. Juarez’s conviction is a misdemeanor, and under her plea agreement, if she has cooperated as promised she will be sentenced to probation and prosecutors will not seek jail time.
Three other felony charges, accusing Fuentes of filling out one voter’s ballot and forging signatures on some of the four ballots she illegally returned, were dismissed.
Republicans repeating unsupported claims that President Donald Trump would have been reelected if not for widespread voting fraud have cited this case as part of a broader pattern in battleground states, but the evidence suggests it didn’t extend beyond small-town politics.
Attorney General’s Office investigation records obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request show that fewer than a dozen ballots could be linked to Fuentes, not enough to make a difference in all but the tightest local races.
The office of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican seeking his party’s U.S. Senate nomination, provided the records after delays of more than 15 months.
Fuentes and Juarez were seen with several mail-in envelopes outside a cultural center in San Luis on the day of the 2020 primary election, according to reports from investigators. The ballots were taken inside and dropped in a ballot box.
Fuentes was recorded on video by a write-in candidate who called the Yuma County sheriff.
An investigation was launched that day, and about 50 ballots checked for fingerprints, which were inconclusive. The investigation was taken over by the attorney general’s office within days, with investigators collaborating with sheriff’s deputies to interview voters, Fuentes and others.