HOUSTON (CN) – Touting his “commitment to protecting the integrity of elections,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Monday his office is prosecuting a Mexican national indicted on two felony voter fraud charges that could send her to prison for decades.
Texas state law enforcement officers arrested Laura Janeth Garza, 38, on Friday in Houston and booked her into the Montgomery County Jail in Conroe, an hour north of Houston, where she is being held on $75,000 bonds for each of two charges of illegal voting.
If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, Paxton said in a statement Monday.
The charges stem from a ballot Garza allegedly cast in the November 2016 presidential election.
Paxton said his office and the Texas Department of Public Safety began investigating Garza after a woman tried to get a U.S. passport, and learned that Garza had already obtained a passport using her identity.
The state’s investigation revealed that Garza had used the woman’s identity to illegally register to vote in Harris County, whose seat is Houston, and cast ballots in 2004, 2012 and 2016, Paxton said in a statement.
“This case demonstrates my office’s commitment to protecting the integrity of elections,” Paxton said. “We will continue to do everything in our power to safeguard the electoral process in Texas.”
Like President Donald Trump, Texas Republican leaders believe that in-person voter fraud is a major problem that must be vigorously investigated and prosecuted to ensure legitimate voters do not lose faith in the electoral process.
But the numbers in Texas do not back up their concerns. From 2005 through 2017, there were 60 voter fraud convictions in Texas out of more than 65 million votes cast, according to a study by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
The Republican-led Texas Legislature cited voter fraud as the main justification for its passage of a tough voter ID law in 2011.
Civil rights groups who claimed the law discriminated against poor minority voters, who were less likely than white voters to have acceptable forms of identification, tied up the law in court for years before the Fifth Circuit in April upheld a watered-down version the Legislature passed in 2017.
The data uncovered by that litigation did nothing to bolster the state’s concerns, and critics say Texas’ new voter ID law does nothing to increase oversight of mail-in ballots, which are more at risk for fraud.
According to the case record, in the 10 years Texas before passed its first voter ID law in 2011, only two cases of in-person voter fraud were prosecuted to conviction out of 20 million votes cast.
But Paxton’s recent record on voter fraud prosecutions does not bode well for Garza.
In February 2017, a Tarrant County jury convicted Rosa Maria Ortega, a mother of four with a sixth-grade education, of illegal voting and sentenced her to 8 years in prison after she admitted that she mistakenly thought her status as a legal resident allowed her to vote. Assistant State Attorney General Jonathan White led the prosecution of Ortega’s case.
Ortega, a Mexican national who has lived in the U.S. since she was a child, is free on bond while her appeal of the sentence plays out.
She argues in her appeal that a transcript of her interview by two investigators with Paxton’s office, who visited her home in October 2015 to ask her about her voting record, should have been suppressed during her trial because the agents did not first read her Miranda rights to her.
She also claims that the trial judge erred in not sustaining her counsel’s objection during her sentencing hearing to a prosecutor’s claim that a not-guilty verdict would have opened the floodgates to illegal voting in Tarrant County.
“The reference to ‘floodgates’ in our present-day, highly-charged, political atmosphere over illegal immigration was steeped in prejudice designed to arouse the passion and prejudices of the jury,” her appeal states.
Ortega voted for Republicans in 2012 and 2014, including Paxton.
Another controversial voter fraud conviction out of Tarrant County is also on appeal.
A judge there sentenced Crystal Mason, a 43-year-old black mother of several small children, to five years in prison in March.
The judge threw the book at Mason for illegally voting in the November 2016 election, though she told the judge it was an honest mistake. She said she did not know that she was barred from voting because she was still on supervised release from a 2012 felony federal tax fraud conviction.
Mason has filed a motion for a new trial. She said she never would have voted if she knew she could be convicted for it.
Paxton’s staff did not immediately reply Monday when asked how many people he has prosecuted for voter fraud since he took office in January 2015.