By Bob Christie
An Arizona woman accused of illegally collecting early ballots in the 2020 primary election pleaded guilty Thursday in an agreement with state prosecutors that saw the more serious forgery and conspiracy charges dismissed and limited any potential for a lengthy prison sentence.
Guillermina Fuentes, 66, could get probation for running what Arizona attorney general’s office investigators said was a sophisticated operation using 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.
Prosecutors were apparently unable to prove the most serious charges, dropping three felony counts alleging that Fuentes filled out one voter’s ballot and forged signatures on some of the four ballots she illegally returned for people who were not family members.
Republicans who have rallied around the possibility of widespread voting fraud in the 2020 election where former President Donald Trump was defeated have pointed to the charges against Fuentes as part of a broader pattern in battleground states. But there’s no sign her illegal ballot collection went beyond the small-town politics Fuentes was involved in.
Fuentes and a second woman were indicted in December 2020 on one count of ballot abuse, a practice commonly known as “ballot harvesting” that was made illegal under a 2016 state law. The conspiracy, forgery and an additional ballot abuse charge against Fuentes were added last October.
Fuentes said little during a change of plea hearing in southwestern Arizona’s Yuma County on Thursday, just acknowledging the judge’s questions with “yes” as he asked whether she had read and understood the plea agreement.
Fuentes, a former San Luis mayor who serves as an elected board member of the Gadsden Elementary School District in San Luis, could be sentenced to up to two years in prison, but that would require a judge to find aggravating circumstances. The plea agreement leaves the actual sentence up to a judge, who could give her probation, home confinement and a hefty fine for her admission to illegally collecting and returning four voted ballots.
Sentencing was set for June 30. She will lose her voting rights and must give up elected office.
Attorney Anne Chapman said in an email Thursday that she had no comment on the charges against her client.
But she slammed Arizona’s ballot collection law, saying it impedes minority voters who have historically relied on others to help them vote. She said “this prosecution shows that the law is part of ongoing anti-democratic, state-wide, and national voter suppression efforts.”
Attorney general’s office investigation records obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request show that fewer than a dozen ballots could be linked to Fuentes, not enough to make a difference in all but the tightest local races.
The office of Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican seeking his party’s U.S. Senate nomination, provided the records after delays of more than 15 months.
It is the only case ever brought by the attorney general under the 2016 “ballot harvesting” law, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.
Investigators wrote that it appeared Fuentes used her position as a powerful figure in the heavily Mexican American community to get people to give her or others their ballots to return to the polls. Fuentes and her co-defendant were seen with several mail-in envelopes outside a cultural center in San Luis on the day of the 2020 primary election, the reports show. The ballots were taken inside and dropped in a ballot box.
She was videotaped by a write-in candidate who called the Yuma County sheriff. The reports said the video showed her marking at least one ballot, but that charge was among those dropped.
An investigation was launched that day, and about 50 ballots checked for fingerprints, which were inconclusive. The investigation was taken over by the attorney general’s office within days, with investigators collaborating with sheriff’s deputies to interview voters, Fuentes and others.
Although Fuentes was charged only with actions that appear on the videotape and involve just a handful of ballots, investigators believe the effort went much farther.
Attorney general’s office investigator William Kluth wrote in one report that there was some evidence suggesting Fuentes actively canvassed San Luis neighborhoods and collected ballots, in some cases paying for them.
Collecting ballots in that manner was a common get-out-the-vote tactic used by both political parties before Arizona passed the 2016 law. Paying for ballots has never been legal.
There’s no sign she or anyone else in Yuma County collected ballots in the general election, but investigators from the attorney general’s office are still active in the community.
The Arizona Republic reported Tuesday that search warrants were served last month at a nonprofit in San Luis. The group’s executive director is chair of the Yuma County board of supervisors and said the warrant sought the cell phone of a San Luis councilwoman who may have been involved in illegal ballot collection.
And at a legislative hearing Tuesday where election conspiracy theorists testified, the Yuma primary election case was again a highlight.
“It’s all about corruption in San Luis and skewing a city council election,” Yuma Republican Rep. Tim Dunn said. “This has been going on for a long time, that you can’t have free and fair elections in south county, for decades. And its spreading across the country.”