More than two years after they engaged in election fraud, Guillermina Fuentes and Alma Yadira Juarez were sentenced Thursday for harvesting ballots during Yuma County’s August 2020 Primary Election, but not until the judge had harsh words for one of the women.
Judge Bruce Nelson imposed a 30-day jail sentence for Fuentes, who pleaded guilty back in June to felony ballot abuse in a scheme that involved collecting ballots from other voters in violation of Arizona’s anti-ballot harvesting law. Once out of jail, Fuentes will be on supervised probation for 24 months, Nelson ordered.
Fuentes’ defense team argued at a mitigation hearing earlier this month that Fuentes, a local school board member and former Mayor of San Luis, was simply trying to help her community. Nelson rejected the argument, noting Arizona’s anti-ballot harvesting law was well-publicized.
“Everybody that’s involved in politics in this area knew that a new law was passed,” said Nelson, who also tackled the history of election fraud in the San Luis community. “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.”
The judge also rejected testimony from a handful of defense character witnesses who suggested Fuentes was not really a criminal.
“Well, you are a criminal. You committed a criminal offense,” Nelson said while addressing Fuentes. “I don’t think you recognize that as a criminal offense. That’s the problem that I have.”
And as to arguments the defense team presented as mitigating factors in favor of leniency, Nelson simply said, “I think they’re also aggravating factors.”
“Judge Nelson was right, said Sergio Arellano, executive Director of Conserva Mi Voto,”the issues Ms. Fuentes’ team brought up as mitigating factors are aggravating factors. She is a seasoned politico, and knew precisely what she was doing, and who she was doing it to. She knew she was taking advantage of the most vulnerable members of our community. In 2016, when I testified in front of an Arizona State Legislature committee in favor of the bill that prohibits ballot harvesting, it was exactly the type of political predators like Ms. Fuentes that we were trying to stop. Stop them from manipulating our abulelitas, abuelos, and other hard-working tax paying loved ones who have the right to cast a ballot in the greatest country’s elections.”
Fuentes, who was not taken into custody at the time of sentencing, was allowed to self-report to the Yuma County jail no later than 6 p.m. Oct. 15. Fuentes’s jail time is not eligible for work furlough or early release, Nelson ordered.
Juarez was also sentenced by Nelson last week. She will serve 12 months of probation stemming from her guilty plea in January to a Class 1 misdemeanor of ballot abuse.
Arizona law regarding handling of ballots was changed in 2016 so that only a family member, household member, or caregiver of a voter may lawfully collect voted or unvoted early ballots from another person.
The Yuma County Sheriff’s Office was tipped off to the ballot harvesting scheme on Primary Election Day in August 2020 by local residents Gary Snyder and David Lara who had video evidence from outside a San Luis polling place that implicated Fuentes and Juarez.
The case was later assigned to the Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s election integrity unit. The two women were eventually indicted in connection with four ballots they were seen with on the video, although the investigation uncovered the widespread practice in the community of election fraud, not only ballot harvesting.
Hundreds of pages of documents related to the San Luis investigation were released by Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s staff earlier this year, although dozens of reports and interview transcripts have not yet been made public.
Last week, Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot confirmed that at least one of Brnovich’s special agents had recently been in town. No arrests were made and his deputies were only involved in a support role, said Wilmot, who referred inquiries as to the nature of the agent’s visit to the attorney general.
Brnovich’s office has not responded to multiple inquiries from Arizona Daily Independent.