A southwestern Arizona woman was sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years probation, as she pleaded guilty to illegally collecting four early voting ballots in the 2020 primary election. The judge rejected her plea for just probation and said that he did not think she accepts responsibility for her criminal act.
The sentence for the 66-year-old Guillermina Fuentes, at one time a school board member and former mayor of San Luis, caps a lengthy case that caught the eye of investigators on the day of the August 2020 primary and eventually led to charges against Fuentes and another San Luis woman.
Even though it came in the primary and is the sole case of “ballot harvesting” ever prosecuted in the state, 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.
Fuentes was told by Roger Nelson, a Yuma County Superior Court Judge, that despite a parade of character witnesses and a probation officer who wrote a pre-sentence report saying in court 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,” read Nelson, according to Fox10 Phoenix.
Nelson then told her: “Well, you are a criminal.” “You committed a criminal offense. I don’t think you recognize that as a criminal offense. That’s the problem that I have,” he added.
For violating a 2016 “ballot harvesting” law, prosecutors from the Arizona attorney general’s office had sought a year in prison. That law makes it illegal to possess someone else’s mail ballots unless they are a family member, housemate, or caregiver to the voter.
Nelson was urged by Fuentes’ attorneys to give her probation and called a parade of character witnesses at a recent hearing who provided glowing reports of her service in the small border city of San Luis. The reports included comments on her growing a business and becoming a leader and her remorse for breaking the law. For that, she was praised by Nelson, but he also said that 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,” said Nelson. “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,” he added.
The four early voting ballots were collected from acquaintances in San Luis by Fuentes, and she 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. After that, Juarez carried them inside and put them in a ballot drop-off bin.
In a plea agreement with prosecutors that called for her to get probation, Juarez pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, but Nelson was not bound by that agreement and gave her probation and no jail time.
The exchange outside the polls was videotaped by a city council write-in candidate, who then called the sheriff’s office. The investigation was quickly taken over by the attorney general’s “election integrity” unit.
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, the prosecutors alleged in court papers. But more serious charges of conspiracy and forgery were dropped and both pleaded guilty to a single count of ballot abuse.
“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 noting that 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.
“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,” added Nelson.