In 2004 and again in 2008, an Austrian-born Canadian citizen living in the swing state of Florida cast absentee ballots in the U.S. presidential election. Josef Sever knew he wasn’t eligible to vote, but he registered to vote anyway, lying when asked if he was a U.S. citizen. Sever’s public defender called it “a misguided attempt to exercise a civic duty,” the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported. But Sever had also lied about being a citizen to obtain a gun permit.
A South Florida judge sentenced Sever to five months in prison. That was back in 2012, before the president of the United States claimed that three or five million people voted illegally. It was before Infowars and Breitbart whipped up nativist anger at a perceived invasion of Mexicans. And, of course, Sever is a European naturalized citizen of Canada; nobody’s ever chanted about building a wall with Canada.
So it was a different story for Rosa Maria Ortega, a 37-year-old Mexican citizen who said during her trial this winter that she didn’t know she wasn’t allowed to vote. The mother of four was brought to Texas by her mother as an infant, and she only attended school through sixth grade. Ortega was sentenced to eight years in prison, a punishment typically reserved for serial fraudsters and partisans attempting to sabotage elections with tactics like vote buying.
In Ortega’s case, however, the sequence of events that led to her arrest plainly validate her explanation that she was merely “confused.” Her lawyer, Clark Birdsall, explained to The New York Times what happened when Ortega registered to vote for elections in 2012 and 2014:
Lacking the permanent resident option, he said, she ticked the “citizen” box. When the county later mailed her a registration card, he said, she believed she “was good to go.”
Ms. Ortega moved to neighboring Tarrant County and again registered, but this time checked a box affirming that she was not a citizen. When her application was rejected in March 2015, the trial showed, she called election officials and told them that she had previously voted in Dallas County without difficulty.
In other words, she was so ignorant of the law she inadvertently turned herself in. Birdsall told the Associated Press he wanted to remind the jury, “You cannot hold this woman accountable for Donald Trump’s fictitious three million votes,” but the judge wouldn’t allow him to say that.
Prosecutors insist Trump had nothing to do with it. “This case shows how serious Texas is about keeping its elections secure,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said after her sentencing. Paxton supports a Texas law that would require voters to have identification, which critics say is intended to discriminate against minorities who are less likely to have a photo ID. In a state whose demographics are tipping the political landscape away from Republican control, it’s not surprising that Republicans are the ones who favor voter ID laws. Ironically, Ortega voted for Paxton in 2014.
The right-wing Heritage Foundation has published a report that compiles hundreds of election-fraud cases as part of its advocacy for tougher controls on voting. Seldom has a convict been sentenced to as many years in prison as Ortega was. In 2005, a Mexican in Alaska pleaded guilty to voting illegally in three elections and received one year probation. A Peruvian woman who voted in 2006 in Illinois was spared prison time and deported when she was caught. And in Texas in 2007, a local elected official admitted to helping non-citizens register to vote; her sentence was three years shorter than Ortega’s.
Many Americans were horrified by the severity of Ortega’s sentence—but not everyone. When The New York Times profiled Ortega in March, while she was home on bail, the White House-aligned website Breitbart complained about the “protracted public relations campaign on behalf of a non-U.S. citizen.” The case, of course, sparked intense debate online, with many hardliners correctly asserting that ignorance of the law is not a defense. But many went further to say they were pleased with the punishment, regretting only that their taxes would be used to feed her in prison.
To get a sense of the worldview that could lead someone to support Ortega’s sentence, just read the comments on Breitbart. Regarding Mexican immigration, one wrote, “I’d rather have an influx of cows.”