Three South Texas campaign workers accused of illegally assisting elderly and disabled voters in the City of Hidalgo’s 2016 runoff election face a total of 18 felony and misdemeanor charges for their part in the alleged voter fraud scheme.
Marcela Gutierrez, a non-citizen, is charged with illegal voting for marking a ballot without the voter’s consent, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. While claiming to show the voter how to use a voting machine, Gutierrez actually cast the voter’s ballot for the slate of candidates she was paid to support, according to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office.
Gutierrez is also charged with 10 misdemeanor counts of unlawfully assisting a voter.
Gutierrez’s fellow campaign workers Sylvia Arjona and Sara Ornelas are charged with a total of seven counts of unlawfully assisting a voter, a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
Arjona is the wife of Hidalgo ISD trustee and San Juan city manager Ben Arjona, and a known supporter of the Citizens Alliance for a Better Hidalgo slate, according to The Monitor. That slate included city council candidates Rudy Franz, Leonardo Rodriguez, and Oziel Treviño.
It’s against the law to assist a voter who is ineligible for help or hasn’t requested it. It’s also illegal for someone assisting a voter to suggest how they should vote or to cast a vote without the voter’s consent. Voter assistance protections apply to both in-person voting and voting by mail-in ballot.
“These cases highlight the unfortunate widespread abuse of elder and disabled voters in our state,” Paxton said:
“Texas law provides accommodations to assist those who cannot vote their own ballots, but those provisions are being abused to deprive vulnerable Texans of their voice in government. Anyone who attempts to exploit the voter assistance process to steal votes will be brought to justice and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
This is one of several ongoing voter fraud investigations in the Rio Grande Valley.
Also in Hidalgo County, five suspects have been arrested and charged with illegally voting and/or registering to vote in the City of Edinburg’s 2017 mayoral election, despite not living in the city at the time. Paxton’s office is working with Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez and the Texas Rangers on the investigations.
The AG’s office also offered assistance to Starr County officials, who opened a voter fraud investigation earlier this year. Authorities there have arrested three campaign workers accused of fraudulently filling out mail-in ballot applications for the March 2018 primary. In some cases, they marked “disability” on ballot applications for voters who were not disabled.
Illegal voter assistance by paid campaign workers, also known as politiqueras, is an ongoing problem in the Rio Grande Valley.
In the Hidalgo County city of Weslaco, Commissioner Lupe Rivera, Sr. and his campaign worker both pleaded guilty to illegally assisting mail-ballot voters in Rivera’s 2013 re-election race. Rivera’s 16-vote win was overturned in court due to voter fraud.
Federal authorities prosecuted six Hidalgo County politiqueras who pleaded guilty to unlawful assistance and bribing voters in 2012 local elections including the Donna ISD school board race. Just days after the arrests, then-school board president Alfredo Lugo hanged himself.
In neighboring Cameron County, the state prosecuted six politiqueras for multiple voter fraud violations, including unlawfully assisting a voter, during the 2012 Democratic primary runoff election.
Members of Objective Watchers of the Legal System (OWLS), a Rio Grande Valley watchdog group, say in small towns where local governments and school districts are the biggest employers, voters often feel coerced or intimidated because they fear retaliation.
“If these people do not vote the way they’re supposed to, by the time they’re carted back to the school or city, they’re fired,” OWLS member Fern McClaugherty says.
Former Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra told the Austin American-Statesman in 2016 that he received voter fraud and coercion complaints in every election for 35 years:
“For the last 10 or 12 years, the one (complaint) we saw the most was the politiqueras that were voting for people taken to the polls. … To me, 99 percent of (assisted votes) are being cast by the person who drove them. The only way to stop that is for the Legislature to pass something saying that if you’re going to be assisted, a clerk will be the witness. … That way you could vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and you wouldn’t lose your job as a city clerk or school administrator.”
Multiple voter fraud investigations are ongoing throughout Texas.