Records show coordinated ballot collection program in Arizona

PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona woman charged in 2020 with illegal ballot harvesting charges apparently led a sophisticated operation using her status as a well-known Democratic operative in the border town of San Luis to persuade voters to let her gather and in some cases. fill out their ballots, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

Guillermina Fuentes, 66, and a second woman were charged in December 2020 with one count of ballot abuse, a practice commonly referred to as “ballot harvesting” which was made illegal under a 2016 state law. Charges of conspiracy, forgery and an additional charge of ballot abuse were added last October.

Fuentes, a former San Luis mayor who is an elected member of the Gadsden Elementary School District Board of Trustees in San Luis, has a court date Thursday where she can change her not guilty plea. His co-defendant is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to a reduced charge several months ago.

Fuentes is accused of collecting ballots in the 2020 primary election in violation of the law that only allows a caregiver or family member to return someone else’s early ballot and , in some cases, to complete it.

His attorney, Anne Chapman, said in an email Thursday that she had no comment on the charges against her client.

But she criticized Arizona’s ballot collection law, saying it hinders minority voters who have always relied on others to help them vote. She said “this lawsuit shows that the law is part of ongoing anti-democratic, statewide and nationwide voter suppression efforts.”

Republicans have rallied around the possibility of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election where former President Donald Trump was defeated. They pointed to the charges against Fuentes as part of a larger pattern in battleground states.

There is no sign of this in the investigation files, however. They were obtained through a public records request from the Arizona Attorney General’s office that was first made in February 2021, but was denied. The AP sent a new request last October after new charges were filed against Fuentes. The attorney general eventually provided more than 20 documents outlining the investigation late last week.

Records show fewer than a dozen ballots could be tied to Fuentes, not enough to make a difference in all but the tightest local races. She is only charged with illegally tampering with four ballots.

It is the only case ever brought by the attorney general under the 2016 law, which was upheld by the US Supreme Court last year.

Investigators said it appears she 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.

The alleged illegal ballot collection by Fuentes and his co-defendant occurred in plain sight outside a cultural center in San Luis on primary election day, according to reports. Fuentes was at a card table set up by supporters of a list of candidates for city council and was spotted with several mail-in ballot envelopes, taking out the ballots and, in some cases, marking them.

The ballots were then transported inside the cultural center and deposited in a ballot box.

It was filmed by a write-in candidate who called the Yuma County Sheriff. An investigation was launched that day and around 50 ballot papers were checked for fingerprints, which were inconclusive. The investigation was taken over by the attorney general’s office within days, with investigators working with sheriff’s deputies to interview voters and others, including Fuentes.

Although Fuentes is only charged with the actions that appear on the videotape and involve only a handful of ballots, investigators believe the effort went much deeper.

Attorney General’s Office investigator William Kluth wrote in a report that there was evidence to suggest that Fuentes actively surveyed San Luis neighborhoods and collected ballots, in some cases paying for them.

Collecting ballots in this manner was a common tactic used by both political parties before Arizona passed the 2016 law. Paying for ballots was never legal.

There is no evidence that she or anyone else in Yuma County collected ballots in the general election, but investigators from the Attorney General’s Office are still active in Yuma County.

The Arizona Republic reported on Tuesday that search warrants were served last month at a nonprofit organization in San Luis. The group’s executive director is chairman of the Yuma County Board of Supervisors and said the warrant was looking for the cellphone of a San Luis councilwoman who may have been involved in illegal ballot collection.

And at a legislative hearing on Tuesday where election conspiracy theorists testified, the Yuma primary election case was again a highlight.

“This is about corruption in San Luis and rigging the city council elections,” Yuma Republican Rep. Tim Dunn said. “It’s been a long time, that you can’t have free and fair elections in South County, for decades. And it’s spreading all over the country.

Abuse of ballots is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison and a $150,000 fine.

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