On Thursday, a Fort Worth, Texas, judge sentenced 37-year-old permanent resident Rosa Maria Ortega, a mother of four who has lived in the U.S. since she was an infant, to an eight-year prison term for illegally voting in elections in 2012 and 2014, the New York Times reported.
The harsh sentence came down as part of an effort to show "how serious Texas is about keeping its elections secure," according to a statement from state GOP Attorney General Ken Paxton.
The case — and the harsh sentence, which will almost certainly result in Ortega's deportation upon its completion — dovetails with the Republican Party's growing concern that mass voting fraud threatens the nation's electoral systems. While in reality such in-person fraud is almost nonexistent, GOP officials have used concerned-sounding rhetoric to back restrictions on voting across the U.S.
Cries of "voter fraud" have found their champion in President Donald Trump, who is openly spreading the lie that 3 to 5 million undocumented immigrants cast illegal votes in the Nov. 8 election. Trump painted the supposed phenomenon in hostile, often racial, terms during the election, saying fraud originated with undocumented immigrants and in urban areas.
One thing that won't help the GOP's credibility: Ortega is a registered Republican who says she simply did not know she was ineligible to vote, according to the Times. Her lawyer says she voted for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012, as well as Paxton, the Republican attorney general prosecuting her, in 2014.
"She wasn't trying to topple the country," Ortega's lawyer, Clark Birdsall, told the Times. "She was trying to make more serious decisions about our country than the 50% of people who didn't bother to vote in the last election." Birdsall added that "this country is so inflamed by this Donald Trump nonsense that they've turned her into a whipping boy."
Ortega spent almost her entire life in the U.S. and believed herself to be a citizen — and now she's going to pay dearly for her minor mistake.
The last case of voter fraud in Fort Worth, in 2015, ended in probation. According to the Texas Tribune, authorities prosecuted just 15 cases of voter fraud between the 2012 primary elections and July 2016, 11 of which involved canvassers paid to assist voters with in mail-in ballots.
Nationally, an inquiry by the Times to election officials in all 50 states found no evidence of mass fraud anywhere and only a handful of allegations, let alone prosecutions.
As the Times noted in 2016, Republicans across the country have occasionally dropped the pretense that fraud is a criminal problem to admit restrictions on voting rights help their party win elections.