osa Maria Ortega, 37, came to the United States as an infant. She has a sixth grade education. When she was about eleven, her mother was arrested and deported. Her two younger brothers, born in the US, became citizens. She became a permanent resident, with a green card. She is a mother of four children, ages 12-16, who are all citizens, and engaged to marry Oscar Sherman, a citizen.
When she lived in Dallas County, she registered to vote on forms that had no box to check for “permanent resident,” only “citizen.” She registered in 2012, as a Republican. She voted for Mitt Romney. She voted again in May 2014. When she moved to Tarrant County, she again registered to vote in October, on a different form, with a box for “non-citizen,” which she checked. That registration was rejected. She explained to election officials that she had voted in Dallas County without difficulty, they said she had to be a citizen. In March 2015 she filed another form claiming to be a citizen. Apparently no one thought to sort the situation out humanely, with someone who didn’t know the difference legally between permanent residency and citizenship.
Instead, in October 2015, she was arrested and charged with “Illegal Voting,” a second degree felony under a Texas law that took effect January 1, 2012. She was indicted in November 2015. According to Rosa Maria Ortega’s attorney, Clark Birdsall, the Texas Attorney General’s office agreed to dismiss all charges if she would agree to testify on voting procedures before the Texas Legislature, but Tarrant County district attorney Sharen Wilson vetoed any deal and demanded a trial to showcase how tough she could be on “election fraud.” The state and county officials refused to comment on this to The New York Times, but a spokesman for Wilson offered a non-denial denial saying any negotiations had been only “discussions.”
On February 8, 2017, after about two hours of deliberation, a jury found Rosa Maria Ortega guilty on two counts, thereby rejecting her testimony that she was confused by and didn’t understand the law. Each count carried a possible sentence of 20 years in prison. The statute requires that the court determine that a person cast an illegal ballot “knowingly.” The following day, the Texas county judge sentenced Rosa Maria Ortega to an eight-year sentence on each count (to run concurrently) and fined her $5000.
The Attorney General, Ken Paxton, was elected in 2014 after years of crusading against “voter fraud.” (He has his own legal issues these days, Texas criminal securities fraud charges and a federal lawsuit, but he denies any wrongdoing, with a trial coming up May 1.) After Rosa Maria Ortega’s sentencing, Ken Paxton was all over the news boasting in an email:
This case shows how serious Texas is about keeping its elections secure, and the outcome sends a message that violators of the state’s election law will be prosecuted to the fullest. Safeguarding the integrity of our elections is essential to preserving our democracy.
Republican governor Greg Abbott, a longtime promoter of fantasy voter fraud, pushed his way into the Rosa Maria Ortega spotlight with a tweet of absurd intensity for a fellow party member:
In Texas you will pay a price for Voter Fraud: Noncitizen Sentenced to 8 Years in prison for Illegal Voting. #txlege
The judge who sentenced Rosa Maria Ortega is also Republican. So is the Attorney General. In 2014, Rosa Maria Ortega voted for him.
Rosa Maria Ortega’s ordeal is a Republican zeitgeist story
Since 2002, some 72 million Texas votes have led to voter fraud prosecution in – wait for it – fewer than 100 cases (in which convictions led to light sentences or probation). But politicians pursuing an imaginary monster tend to inflate any evidence they can find of their particular Big Foot. That’s just Rosa Maria Ortega’s bad luck, that and Republicans’ savage indifference to inflicting needless pain and cruelty.
Texas voter laws have for years illustrated Republican cruelty in pursuit of hobgoblins. Last year the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, by a 9-6 vote, struck down part of the Texas Voter ID law. Considered the country’s most conservative appeals court, it held that the Texas law discriminates against black and Latino citizens. For now, the US Supreme Court has rejected a Texas appeal of the lower court’s ruling. The law would have eliminated 16,400 legal voters from the election. Texas governor Greg Abbott issued a statement at the time:
The 5th Circuit rightly reversed the lower court’s finding of discriminatory purpose, but wrongly concluded the law had a discriminatory effect. Voter fraud is real, and it undermines the integrity of the election process. As Attorney General I prosecuted cases against voter fraud across the State, and Texas will continue to make sure there is no illegal voting at the ballot box.
At about the same time, Abbott also claimed: “The fact is voter fraud is rampant—and in Texas, unlike some other states and unlike some other leaders, we are committed to cracking down on voter fraud.” Politifact called Abbott’s claim a “Pants on Fire” lie. In Texas it’s a crackdown on rampant voter fraud when they judicially lynch an under-educated woman who voted Republican. (In Iowa, the woman charged with voting twice for Trump is, according to her attorney, mentally incompetent to stand trial.)
Rosa Maria Ortega’s attorney Clark Birdsall is outspoken about the injustice of this Texas prosecution and the fatuous Republican self-grandiosity that goes with it:
These people are beating their chests and wrapping themselves up in the flag and trying to impress our current occupier of the White House, and they’re like a big-game hunter, one foot on the carcass, with their gun in their hand and with a big smile on their face.
This is such a miscarriage.
And the taxpayers are going to pay a minimum of $300,000 or $400,000 to house this woman, just so a local politicians can curry favor with Trump, or with Abbott, who is just as out of control.
With mindless immigrant persecution continuing across the country in the current ICE rampage, Rosa Maria Ortega’s story is emblematic of the inhumanity Republicans bring to governing. Whether it’s cruelty to the sick, or cruelty to immigrants, or cruelty to disabled people, or cruelty to the LGBTQ community, it’s always cruelty at the heart of the approach.