The decision was hailed by some — including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), who prosecuted the case — as a sign the state intends to crack down on voter fraud.
“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,” Paxton said in a statement. “Safeguarding the integrity of our elections is essential to preserving our democracy.”
However, Ortega’s lawyer and others said the punishment was unusually harsh and meant to appease those who are “swept up in the Trump hysteria where he is trying to find an explanation for why he lost the popular vote.”
Ortega did not vote in the 2016 presidential election, her attorney, Clark Birdsall, told The Washington Post by phone on Saturday.
Ortega was a registered Republican who had been voting for more than a decade, he said. On her voter application, Ortega was faced with only two options — to mark herself as a ‘citizen’ or a ‘noncitizen’ — and didn’t know better, he added.
“She doesn’t know. She’s got this [green] card that says ‘resident’ on it, so she doesn’t mark that she’s not a citizen,” Birdsall said. “She had no ulterior motive beyond what she thought, mistakenly, was her civic duty.”
In 2015, Ortega applied to vote in Tarrant County, indicating on the form that she was not a citizen; her application was rejected, NBC DFW reported at the time. However, five months later, she filled out another form and claimed the second time that she was a citizen, the station reported. A subsequent investigation found she had voted when she wasn’t supposed to in Dallas County, the NBC affiliate reported.
Birdsall said Ortega has voted in five elections since 2004, each time casting only a single ballot. Ortega voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election and then — somewhat ironically — for Ken Paxton for Texas attorney general in a 2014 Republican primary runoff. Paxton would go on to win and, less than three years later, deal the eight-year sentence to Ortega.
“It’s a single vote that she’s casting” each time, Birdsall said. “The fact that she got eight years is off the rails.”
Birdsall also claimed he and Paxton had an agreement worked out, in which he would dismiss the felonies as long as Ortega accompanied him to the state legislature and spoke in favor of changing voting procedures.
However, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson “killed that resolution,” Birdsall said.
What resulted, he said, was an unnecessarily harsh prison sentence that dwarfed punishments most people receive. Birdsall, a former public integrity prosecutor in Dallas County, said he never filed a voter fraud charge in five years.
“These charges are exceedingly rare,” he said, citing one past case in which a Houston-area group was sentenced to three years in prison after they listed a hotel as their residence in an effort to sway a local election.
“They were doing some shenanigans that needed to be punished,” Birdsall said, of the other case. He said Ortega, who only obtained a sixth-grade education, did not intend to commit a crime.
“Although [Ortega] was arrested in 2015, [the case] didn’t reach fruition until right in the middle of all this Trump hysteria,” he said. “The timing of this was the perfect storm.”
Wilson’s office did not immediately respond to an interview request Saturday. A spokeswoman for the district attorney told the New York Times on Friday that there were only “discussions,” not negotiations, before Ortega’s trial.
The sentencing has thrust questions about voter fraud — as well as a controversial voter ID law in Texas — back into the spotlight. In July, a federal appeals court ruled that the state’s strict voter-ID law discriminated against minority voters. In January, the Supreme Court declined to review the lower court’s ruling.
The Tarrant County district attorney used the case as an example of why stricter laws were needed.
“At a minimum, statements made in applications to vote should be verified before handing out voter registration cards,” Wilson said in a statement to the Dallas Morning News. “In all aspects of society, people verify their identity. Why not for voting? This case shows a clear need to enforce the laws we already have.”
A 2015 fact-check by PolitiFact found that there had been 85 election fraud prosecutions since 2002, among about 72 million ballots cast in Texas between 2000 and 2014.
“You’re more likely to get struck by lightning in Texas than to find any kind of voter fraud,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said at the time, according to PolitiFact.
Birdsall said Ortega will probably be deported after serving her sentence because she will be a convicted felon. He plans to start an online crowdfunding page for Ortega, a single mother of four children ages 13 to 16.
They also plan to file an appeal, though the conviction is unlikely to be overturned, he said.
“An appeal is a very uphill battle,” Birdsall said. “I don’t see any joy at the end of that road, but it will be appealed. We will do our best.”