In an arrangement with state prosecutors, an Arizona woman accused of unlawfully collecting early ballots in the 2020 primary election pleaded guilty Thursday, dismissing the more serious forgery and conspiracy counts and limiting the possibility of a significant prison term.
Guillermina Fuentes, 66, could face probation for running a sophisticated operation that used her status as a well-known Democratic operative in the border city of San Luis to persuade voters to let her gather and, in some cases, fill out their ballots, according to Arizona attorney general’s office investigators.
Prosecutors dropped three felony allegations charging that Fuentes improperly filled out one voter’s ballot and faked signatures on some of the four ballots she illegally returned for people who were not family members, indicating that they were unable to prove the most serious charges.
Republicans who have rallied around the likelihood of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, in which former President Donald Trump is expected to lose, have pointed to the allegations against Fuentes as part of a larger trend in battleground states.
According to the Associated Press, there was little evidence that her unlawful ballot gathering extended beyond Fuentes’ small-town politics.
In December 2020, Fuentes and a second lady were charged with one count of vote misuse, often known as “ballot harvesting,” which was made illegal by a 2016 state statute. Last October, Fuentes was charged with conspiracy, forgery, and an extra count of ballot misuse.
During a change of plea hearing in Yuma County, Arizona, on Thursday, Fuentes spoke nothing, only nodding yes to the judge’s questioning when he asked if she had read and understood the plea bargain.
Fuentes, a former San Luis mayor who now serves on the Gadsden Elementary School District’s elected board of directors, may face a term of up to two years in jail if a court finds aggravating circumstances. For her admitting to illegally collecting and returning four voted ballots, the plea agreement leaves the exact penalty up to a judge, who might give her probation, home detention, and a heavy fine.
The date for sentencing has been scheduled for June 30. She will lose her right to vote and will be forced to resign from her elected position.
In an email sent Thursday, attorney Anne Chapman said she had no comment on the charges against her client. She, on the other hand, attacked Arizona’s ballot collection law, claiming that it obstructs minority voters who have traditionally relied on others to help them vote. “This prosecution demonstrates that the law is a component of continuous anti-democratic, state-wide, and national voter suppression attempts,” she said.
Fewer than a dozen ballots could be tied to Fuentes, according to attorney general’s office investigative records obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request, which isn’t enough to make a difference in all but the tightest municipal races.
The data were released after a 15-month wait by the office of Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican seeking his party’s Senate nominee.
It is the attorney general’s first case under the 2016 “ballot harvesting” law, which was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court last year.
According to investigators, Fuentes appeared to have utilized her position as an influential person in the mainly Mexican American neighborhood to get voters to return to the polls by giving her or others their ballots. According to the reports, Fuentes and her co-defendant were photographed with multiple mail-in envelopes outside a cultural facility in San Luis on the day of the 2020 primary election. Inside, the ballots were taken and placed in a ballot box.
A write-in candidate for Yuma County Sheriff videotaped her. The video appeared to show her marking at least one ballot, according to reports, but that charge was dismissed.
That day, a probe was begun, and roughly 50 votes were examined for fingerprints, but the results were inconclusive. Within days, the attorney general’s office had taken over the investigation, and investigators worked with sheriff’s deputies to interview voters, Fuentes, and others.
Despite the fact that Fuentes was only charged with the conduct captured on videotape and involving a small number of ballots, investigators suspect the operation went far further.
According to one investigation by the Attorney General’s Office, there was proof that Fuentes canvassed San Luis communities and collected ballots, in some cases paying for them. Before Arizona passed the 2016 law, collecting ballots in this manner was a standard get-out-the-vote strategy utilized by both parties. It has never been permitted to pay for ballots.
Although there is no evidence that she or anybody else in Yuma County collected ballots in the general election, attorney general’s office detectives are still in the area.
Last month, search warrants were served to a nonprofit in San Luis, according to the Arizona Republic. The order sought the cell phone of a San Luis councilwoman who may have been involved in illegal ballot gathering, according to the group’s executive director, who is also the chair of the Yuma County board of supervisors.
The Yuma primary election lawsuit was again a spotlight at a legislative hearing Tuesday as election conspiracy theories spoke.
Yuma Republican Rep. Tim Dunn said, “It’s all about corruption in San Luis and rigging a city council election.” “This has been going on for decades in south county, that you can’t have free and fair elections.” And it’s making its way across the country.”