PHOENIX — A southwestern Arizona woman who pleaded guilty to illegally collecting four early voting ballots in the 2020 primary election was sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years probation on Thursday, with the judge rejecting her plea for just probation and saying he did not think she accepts responsibility for her criminal act.
The sentence for Guillermina Fuentes, a 66-year-old school board member and former mayor of the small border city of San Luis, caps a lengthy case that caught the eye of investigators the day of the August 2020 primary and eventually led to charges against Fuentes and another San Luis woman.
Republicans who question former President Donald Trump's loss in Arizona and other battleground states seized on the case as evidence of widespread voter fraud, even though it came in the primary and is the sole case of “ballot harvesting” ever prosecuted in the state.
Yuma County Superior Court Judge Roger Nelson told Fuentes that despite a parade of character witnesses and a probation officer who wrote a pre-sentence report saying in court last week that she was remorseful, Nelson said he didn't believe it, and then quoted from the report.
"'The defendant acknowledged responsibility for carrying ballots for someone else however, she stated, ’I’m not a criminal,” Nelson read.
“Well, you are a criminal,” Nelson told her. “You committed a criminal offense. I don’t think you recognize that as a criminal offense. That’s the problem that I have.”
Prosecutors from the Arizona attorney general's office had sought a year in prison for violating a 2016 “ballot harvesting” law that makes it illegal to possess someone else's mail ballots unless they are a family member, housemate or caregiver to the voter.
Fuentes' attorneys had urged Nelson to give her probation and called a parade of character witnesses at a hearing last week who provided glowing reports of her service in the small border city of San Luis, growing a business and becoming a leader, and her remorse for breaking the law.
Nelson praised her for that, but also said it weighed heavily in his decision to send her to jail.
“Many of the things that were put forward as mitigating factors, I think they’re also aggravating factors,” he said. “You have been a leader in the San Luis community for a long time. People look up to you, people respect you, and they look to what you do.”
Fuentes collected the four early voting ballots from acquaintances in San Luis, and gave them to co-defendant Alma Juarez while working a table outside a polling place where she was urging people to vote for a slate of city council candidates. Juarez carried them inside and put them in a ballot drop-off bin.
Juarez pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in a plea agreement with prosecutors that called for her to get probation. Nelson was not bound by that agreement, but gave her probation and no jail time.
A city council write-in candidate videotaped the exchange outside the polls, and called the sheriff's office. The attorney general's “election integrity” unit quickly took over the investigation.
Prosecutors alleged in court papers that Fuentes ran a sophisticated operation using her status in Democratic politics in San Luis to persuade voters to let her gather and, in some cases, fill out their ballots. But they dropped more serious charges of conspiracy and forgery and both pleaded guilty to a single count of ballot abuse.
Nelson noted the small-town politics in the case and years of rumors that people like Fuentes collected ballots from voters and delivered them to the polls.
“It’s been an issue for a long time, or at least it’s been alleged that it’s an issue, that people vote for others, take their ballots,” Nelson said. “Everybody that’s involved in politics in this area knew that a new law was passed. You certainly knew it, that that law was new, even went up to the Supreme Court.”
Despite efforts by Republicans who have rallied around the possibility of widespread voting fraud in the 2020 election to paint the case as a sign of rampant voting fraud, there’s no sign her illegal ballot collection went beyond the small-town politics Fuentes was involved in.
Assistant Attorney General Todd Lawson told Nelson at a hearing last week that the case is about the security of elections that Fuentes deserved prison.
Fuentes automatically loses her school board seat and cannot served in an elected or appointed post unless the felony conviction is dropped to a misdemeanor, which can occur after she completes probation. She was ordered to turn herself in to jail on Saturday.
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