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Sentencing set for 2 in Arizona ballot harvesting case

Voters in Arizona.Courtney Pedroza/Photographer: Courtney Pedroza/G

YUMA, Ariz. (AP) — Two women are scheduled to be sentenced Thursday in southern Arizona for their conviction for illegally collecting four early ballots during the 2020 primary election.

Authorities say Guillermina Fuentes and Alma Juarez participated in “ballot harvesting.” That's a practice once used by both political parties to boost turnout but was made illegal by a 2016 state law that barred anyone but a family member or caregiver from returning early ballots for another person. It’s the only case filed so far by the state attorney general under the law.

Authorities say Fuentes ran a sophisticated operation using her status as a well-known Democratic operative in the Arizona border city of San Luis to persuade voters to let her gather and, in some cases, fill out their ballots. But the crime she admitted in court last month does not involve filling out ballots or any broader efforts.

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Fuentes and Juarez each pleaded guilty to a charge of ballot abuse, acknowledging they collected early ballots for people who weren’t family members, didn’t live with them or weren’t receiving care from them.

Fuentes’ conviction was a felony, and she could be sentenced to probation or up to two years in prison, while Juarez’s was a misdemeanor. Under Juarez's plea agreement, if she has cooperated as promised she will be sentenced to probation and prosecutors will not seek jail time.

Three other felony charges against Fuentes were dismissed. Those charges had alleged that Fuentes filled out one voter’s ballot and forged signatures on some of the four ballots she illegally returned for people who weren’t 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.

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Records from an investigation by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office 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.

Investigators have said 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 Juarez were seen with several mail-in envelopes outside a cultural center in San Luis on the day of the 2020 primary election, according to reports from investigators. The ballots were taken inside and dropped in a ballot box.

Fuentes was recorded on video by a write-in candidate who called the Yuma County sheriff.

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.

An investigator for the Attorney General’s Office said 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, though Democrats used the practice more aggressively. Paying for ballots has never been legal.

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The state’s ban on ballot harvesting was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.