Another voice: Eight years in prison for voting illegally is a gross injustice

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press
Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press
Published February 15 2017

We all must respect the sanctity of the right to vote.

To that end, we have no bone to pick with the criminal justice system holding anyone accountable for voting illegally, whether the person cast a fraudulent ballot mistakenly or deliberately.

But we do take issue with the way Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Sharen Wilson, the district attorney of Fort Worth's Tarrant County, are treating Rosa Maria Ortega. She was sentenced last week to eight years in prison and fined $5,000 on each of two counts of illegal voting.

This is an embarrassing and costly miscarriage of justice. It shouldn't be allowed to stand.

Ortega, mind you, wasn't involved in some elaborate plot to sway an election, nor was she scheming to destroy the fabric of our democracy. As a legal permanent resident of the United States, she wasn't qualified to vote at all; she clearly violated the law, and for that, she deserves to be counseled and punished.

Yet, enabling a jury to sentence this woman — a divorced mother of four children who has been in the country since she was an infant — to eight years in prison for what arguably was a naive interpretation of election laws ranks as a gross injustice.

We simply can't ignore or dismiss the political climate in which this miscarriage of justice occurred.

President Donald Trump has tried to stir up the masses with baseless claims about millions of illegal voters who allegedly cast their November ballot for Democrat Hillary Clinton and cost him the popular vote.

Republicans, in a war being driven in Texas by Paxton, are using these spurious suppositions to fuel their campaigns for more restrictive voting laws.

Ortega, 37, evidently got caught up in this political web, which may explain why she's being treated like a violent felon.

She was found guilty of voting in Dallas County in the 2012 general election and the 2014 Republican primary runoff. She said she cast her ballots for Mitt Romney for president and, ironically, Paxton in his bid for attorney general. Go figure.

It's disheartening to learn that once Ortega rejected a plea deal last summer for two years' probation because it probably would've led to her deportation, prosecutors dropped the hammer on her.

Her attorney told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he'd worked with Paxton's office in recent weeks to get the case dismissed in exchange for Ortega testifying before the Legislature about the voting process. Reports said Wilson, the DA, nixed the deal, which she denies. But for some reason, it fell through.

And that's too bad, because it would have been a fairer and more practical outcome for all involved.