A parade of character witnesses gave a judge glowing accounts Thursday of a southern Arizona woman who admitted to collecting four early ballots in the 2020 primary, as her attorney asks for leniency and prosecutors urge him to send her to prison for a time. Testimony in Yuma County Superior Court painted a picture of him Guillermina Fuentes as full of remorse and a pillar of the small border community of San Luis.
The 66-year-old mother and grandmother, witnesses said, spent her life helping others while raising her children, caring for her aging mother and building a business.
Jail or prison time, they said, would harm the community and serve no purpose.
Fuentes is a school board member and former mayor in San Luis who pleaded guilty to an Arizona felonyballot collection” law, which prohibits anyone other than a person’s relative, roommate or caregiver from returning ballots for them. Her co-defendant, Alma Juarez, pleaded guilty to the same charge, but it was downgraded to a misdemeanor after she agreed to cooperate with the prosecutors.
Her deal calls for a suspended sentence. She carried four ballots Fuentes gave her to a polling station and left them.
Republicans have seized on the case as a sign of widespread outreach electoral fraudbut it’s the only “ballot-picking” case ever prosecuted under Arizona’s 2016 law banning the practice, and fewer than a dozen cases since the 2020 election have been filed in a state where more than 3.1 million votes were cast.
In states where the practice is legal, volunteers or campaign workers can go directly to voters’ homes, collect completed ballots, and drop them off en masse at polling places or election offices. In some states, ballot collectors can be paid hourly for their work collecting ballots.
Sherri Castillo, a defense mitigation expert who interviewed Fuentes and others in the community, told the court Thursday that her community involvement and volunteer work are difficult to adequately describe.
“It embarrasses me, I can tell you that,” Castillo said. “I have never met anyone who gives back to the community more than Ms. Fuentes does.”
“Not having Ms. Fuentes in the community would be bad for the community,” he added.
Others who testified before Judge Roger Nelson included the county officer who did not recommend jail time in her report, a Yuma County supervisor and former senator who has known Fuentes for years and a retired San Luis police officer who has known her since 1971 when and the two grew up in the then-tiny frontier community and now serve with her on a local school board.
“I think in our community a lot of us look up to her,” said retired police officer Luis Marquez.
Assistant Attorney General Todd Lawson is asking for a year in prison for Fuentes, telling Nelson the case is about election security and Arizona’s 2016 law banning “ballot harvesting.” This is the first prosecution under this Act, which was upheld by the US Supreme Court last year.
He said that while Fuentes and Juarez were caught on video by a political opponent outside a polling place examining four ballots, the question remains what they did.
“The question is why (Fuentes) feels the need to put pressure on the people of her community and control the flow of their ballot to the ballot box,” Lawson told the judge. “This is the issue of public integrity here.”
Prosecutors alleged in court documents that Fuentes ran a sophisticated operation using her status in Democratic politics in San Luis to persuade voters to let her rally and, in some cases, fill out their ballots. However, they dismissed more serious charges of conspiracy and forgery, and both pleaded guilty to a single count of ballot fraud.
A defense expert who has investigated election law cases in Arizona testified that no one with a clean record has ever been sentenced to prison or jail in the past 20 years. Ann Chapman, Fuentes’ attorney, told Nelson that would be a miscarriage of justice.
“She pleaded guilty to ballot tampering — that is, she turned in four legally voted, signature-verified ballots,” Chapman said. “The remaining allegations against Ms. Fuentes are untrue, baseless, unverified and largely fabricated by election-denying political opponents who have a political ax to grind.”
Nelson’s legal assistant previously told lawyers in the case in an email that he plans to “sent them to 30 days in jail.” He fixed sentencing for both women for next week.