Arizona prosecutors want 66-year-old grandmother to go to prison for collecting 4 ballots in 2020

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A parade of character witnesses gave a judge Thursday glowing accounts of a southern Arizona woman who pleaded guilty to collecting four early ballots in the 2020 primary as her attorney asks for leniency and prosecutors urge him to send her to prison for a year . Testimony in Yuma County Superior Court painted a picture Guillermina Fuentes as filled with remorse and a pillar of the small frontier community of San Luis.

The 66-year-old mother and grandmother, witnesses said, spent her life helping others raise her children, care for her aging mother and build her business.

Jails or prisons, they said, would harm the community and serve no purpose.

Fuentes is a school board member and former mayor in San Luis who pleaded guilty to felony violations of Arizona’s “ballot collection“a law that prohibits anyone except a relative, roommate or caregiver from returning ballots. Her co-defendant, Alma Juarez, pleaded guilty to the same charge, but it was downgraded to a misdemeanor after she agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.”

Her consent requires a suspended sentence. She brought the four ballots Fuentes gave her to the polling station and cast them.

Republicans seized on the case as a sign of the spread election fraudbut it’s the only case of “ballot stuffing” ever prosecuted under Arizona’s 2016 law banning the practice, and fewer than a dozen cases from the 2020 election have been filed in a state where more than 3.1 million votes.

Guillermina Fuentes is seen in an undated photo released by the Arizona Attorney General's office.
Guillermina Fuentes

Arizona Attorney General’s Office via AP


In states where the practice is legal, volunteers or campaign workers can go directly to voters’ homes, collect completed ballots, and drop them off en masse at polling places or election offices. In some states, ballot collectors may be paid hourly for their work collecting ballots.

Sherri Castillo, a defense mitigation expert who interviewed Fuentes and others in the community, told the court Thursday that her community involvement and volunteer work are difficult to adequately describe.

“They put me to shame, I can tell you that,” Castillo said. “I have never come across anyone who gives back to the community more than Ms. Fuentes.”

“Not having Ms. Fuentes in the community would be a disservice to the community,” she added.

Others who testified before Judge Roger Nelson included a county probation officer who recommended no jail time in her report, a Yuma County supervisor and former state senator who has known Fuentes for years, and a former San Luis police officer who knows her since 1971, when they both grew up in what was then a small frontier community and now serve with her on the local school board.

“I think a lot of us in our community look up to her,” said retired police officer Luis Marquez.

Assistant Attorney General Todd Lawson is seeking a year in prison for Fuentes, telling Nelson the case involves election security and a 2016 Arizona law that prohibits “ballot harvesting.” This is the first prosecution under this law that has been confirmed by the US Supreme Court last year.

He said while Fuentes and Juarez were caught on video by a political rival outside a polling center examining four ballots, the question remains what they were doing.

“The question is why (Fuentes) feels the need to put pressure on people in his community and control the flow of their ballots to the ballot box,” Lawson told the judge. “This is a matter of public integrity.”

Prosecutors alleged in court documents that Fuentes ran a sophisticated operation using her position in San Luis Democratic politics to convince voters to let her collect and, in some cases, fill out their ballots. But they dropped the more serious charges of conspiracy and forgery, and both pleaded guilty to a single count of ballot fraud.

A defense expert who has examined voting rights cases in Arizona testified that no one with a clean record has ever been sentenced to jail or prison in the past 20 years. Anne Chapman, Fuentes’ attorney, told Nelson it would be a miscarriage of justice.

“She pleaded guilty to ballot tampering — that is, delivering four legally voted and signed verified ballots,” Chapman said. “The remaining allegations against Ms. Fuentes are false, unsubstantiated, unverified and largely fabricated by political opponents who deny the election and who have a political ax to grind.”

Nelson’s judicial assistant previously told attorneys in the case in an email that he intended to “give them 30 days in jail.” He set the sentence for both women for next week.

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