Last week a Fort Worth, Texas jury convicted a legal permanent resident from Mexico of illegally casting ballots in five elections going back to 2004.
Rosa Maria Ortega, 37, who holds a green card and is married with four children, was sentenced to eight years in prison and could face deportation after serving her time.
Ortega’s defense attorney, Clark Birdsall, said President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud in last year’s elections were the “800-pound gorilla” in the jury box.
Associated Press reporter Paul Weber, who spoke with NewsHour Weekend’s Hari Sreenivasan on Sunday, said Ortega had lived in the U.S. “basically since she was an infant” and her decisions to cast ballots over several elections were mistakes.
Elections experts told Weber during his reporting that “they can’t recall a penalty this harsh” because of voter fraud, he told Sreenivasan.
“Keep in mind that election fraud is very rare and convictions are even rarer,” Weber said. “Most people who are convicted of election fraud typically receive sentences such as probation.”
You can watch Weber’s full interview with the NewsHour Weekend’s Hari Sreenivasan in the player above.
HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Last week a Fort Worth, Texas jury convicted Rosa Maria Ortega, a legal permanent resident from Mexico, a green card holder, of illegally casting ballots in five elections, going back to 2004. She’s not a CNN of the U.S. Her defense attorney, Clark Birdsall, says President Trump’s statements that as many as 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally in the last year’s elections were the 800-pound gorilla in the jury box. The judge sentenced her to eight years in prison.
In addition to her sentence, Ortega could face deportation after serving her time. It’s a complicated and unusual case. For some insight, I’m joined from Austin, Texas, by “Associated Press” reporter Paul Weber.
So, Paul, we tried to set the table a little bit, but I think one of the first no duh questions that we’re seeing on the Internet, one is from Nadia, that saying, well, if she — how was she able to cast a vote if she’s not a registered voter?
PAUL WEBER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Well, Rosa has been in the United States basically since she was an infant. She’s 37 years old. So, she lived her for most of her life. Her attorney said that basically this was a mistake. Having lived here for so long, she was a U.S. permanent resident, she was a green card holder, she just assumed that she had the right to vote.
So, when she begun voting in Dallas County elections on her registration form, she checked the box that says, “Yes, I’m a U.S. citizen.” Where she ran to problems was when she moved to neighboring Tarrant County, which is Fort Worth, right next door to Dallas, and she tried to register to vote again going to the same process.
This time, she did not check that she was a U.S. citizen. She checked that she was a noncitizen. Her application was denied. She called to inquire, “Well, that’s strange. I voted in Dallas County elections before. Why can’t I vote now?”
And then she submitted a follow-up application after that one was rejected. This time, saying that she was a citizen. And that’s what led her down this legal path.
SREENIVASAN: So, she didn’t deny that she was a citizen of Mexico. She just on one form in Dallas County, their, what, there wasn’t an option to say you’re permanent resident and automatically have the application denied years and years ago?
WEBER: Exactly, exactly. In many government forms, you know, you can declare whether you’re a citizen, a permanent resident, a noncitizen. But on a voter registration form, it’s, you know, one or the other, a citizen or a noncitizen. And so, she, according to her attorney, she just checked the one that she felt was, which was a U.S. citizen, even though she wasn’t.
SREENIVASAN: So then, is the prosecution’s case, that she had an intent to deceive because on the one hand, she made a phone call and said, I’m not a citizen, I was a citizen of Mexico, and on the other hand, she actually checked the box that said she is a citizen. Is that where the fraud has been perpetrated?
WEBER: Exactly, exactly. I believe prosecutors during that three-day trial last week in Fort Worth made a point of telling the jury that sort of brought this upon herself. I mean, she was denied originally for a voter registration in Tarrant County, but it was the fact that she didn’t take no for an answer and kept going that got her in this trouble.
SREENIVASAN: OK. Let’s talk about the sentence her. Somebody on Facebook asked: how many people have received the similar sentence for voter fraud?
WEBER: We’re still trying to sort that out. But it is very rare. I mean, elections experts that I’ve spoken with, they can’t recall something similar, (INAUDIBLE) this harsh. I mean, keep in mind that elections fraud is very rare and convictions are even rarer. And most people who are convicted of election fraud typically receives sentences that just probation. So, an eight-year sentence was definitely, it’s very, very stark in terms of this sort of cases and how they usually pan out.
SREENIVASAN: And once you have a prison sentence or you basically have been convicted of a felony charge, the likelihood of you ever getting citizenship from your green card status to citizens almost zero, right? So, thus facing the deportation after she gets out of prison?
WEBER: Yes, yes, her attorney Clark Birdsall who used to be a prosecutor actually in Dallas County, he’s almost certain, he said, that she will be deported she serves this sentence. They are going to appeal, but in this sort of situations, he’s not very optimistic that an appellate court is going to, you know, take a really take a close look at her case and really question this one.
SREENIVASAN: Jeremy asked the question on Twitter, what were the factors that lead to an eight-year sentence? I mean, what is — at least, what is Birdsall say that factored into this?
WEBER: Well, she could have been facing 20 and I spoke to Birdsall earlier this week and he sort of made a — you know, he said, you know, I guess the jury thought they were being merciful.
I mean, as far as he was concerned, he thought he had the jury that he wanted, yet it was a jury of 10 women, two men. You know, Ms. Ortega is a mother of four. And, you know, Mr. Birdsall told me that he had never thought that a jury with 10 women on it would sentence a mother with four kids to prison. And so, this was decided by the jury.
One thing that, you know, Mr. Birdsall said he wanted to bring up during the trial was the widely debunked claims of voter fraud that President Donald Trump has been raising. He said he wanted to plead with the jury that don’t her accountable for these claims that you’re hearing from the president. He said the judge didn’t allow that and he felt that, you know, that was a difficult thing to overcome. In his mind, he thought that jurors were weighing that.
Tarrant County did go for Trump in the November election, 52 percent. And so, he felt that he was in — if this case had been tried, let’s say in Dallas County or, you know, right next door, she would have gotten off a lot better.
SREENIVASAN: And she’s a registered Republican.
WEBER: Yes, she was. She was kind of — you know, the strange thing about it is that, you know, she was — the count she was convicted were voting the 2012 general and the 2014 primary. The 2014 primary is when the current Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, was on the ballot. And he said that she did a vote that year for Paxton, who wounded up persecuting her in this case.
SREENIVASAN: So, this is it? This is all settled now? The sentence has been handed down, there’s not an appeals process. This is her life?
WEBER: Well, there is an appeals process. Her attorney is not very optimistic about, you know, the chances of having this overturned or reconsidered going forward. But he said he will appeal.
But, yes, this is her life. This is what she’s facing. I believe she will be available for parole in a couple of years. But it does look like she’s facing deportation.
And again, I mean, she came her when she was less than a year old and so, if she is deported, she faces going to a country that she didn’t grow up in.
SREENIVASAN: Is there — what happens to her kids right now? I mean, if she’s going to be heading to prison, are there — does she have other family to taking care of them?
WEBER: She does have other family that are in the Dallas area. I did ask her attorney about that. What happens to her four children? They’re, I believe, between the age of 12 and 16. And he said that he doesn’t know, that her attorneys (INAUDIBLE) right now.
SREENIVASAN: All right. Paul Weber of the “Associated Press”, joining us via Skype from Austin, Texas, on this unusual story — thanks so much for joining us.
WEBER: Thank you for having me.