It was a jumpy, 20-second video clip that touched off a firestorm: During a local primary election two years ago, the former mayor of this farm town of San Luis, Arizona, was filmed handling another voter’s ballot. She appeared to make a few marks, and then sealed it and handed a small stack of ballots to another woman to turn in.
That moment outside a polling place in August 2020 thrust this town along the southern border into the center of stolen-election conspiracy theories, as the unlikely inspiration for the debunked voter fraud film “2,000 Mules.”
Activists peddling misinformation and supported by former President Donald Trump descended on San Luis. The Republican attorney general of Arizona opened an investigation into voting, which is still ongoing. The former mayor, Guillermina Fuentes, was sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years’ probation for ballot abuse — or what the attorney general called “ballot harvesting” — a felony under Arizona law.
Fuentes is one of four women in San Luis who have now been charged with illegally collecting ballots during the primaries, including the second woman who appears on the video. But there have been no charges of widespread voter fraud in San Luis linked to the presidential election. Liberal voting-rights groups and many San Luis residents say that investigators, prosecutors and election-denying activists have intimidated voters and falsely tied their community to conspiracy theories about rampant, nationwide election fraud. The film “2,000 Mules,” endorsed by Trump, has helped to keep those claims alive, and is often cited by election-denying candidates across the country.
But the episode also unleashed long-simmering and real frustrations in San Luis over political control. Some residents cheered what they call a long-overdue crackdown on local corruption, which they say is a real issue.
It has all added up to a sense of division and unease in a close-knit city of roughly 37,000 where Cesar Chavez died, a place built by generations of Mexican farmworkers, where lines of migrant workers travel back and forth every day across the border to harvest lettuce and broccoli.
Now, many here say they are afraid to cast ballots or help with voting in the midterms, for fear of receiving a visit from investigators, being monitored by activists or running afoul of a relatively new Arizona ballot abuse law that largely prohibits collecting ballots on behalf of voters other than family members or housemates.
The practice is legal in more than a dozen states, and often used to help housebound seniors or people in low-income neighborhoods and rural areas vote. Conservative critics have called it a potential source of voter manipulation and fraud, though their allegations of widespread election fraud are unfounded. The terms “mule” or “ballot harvesting” are used to describe the practice of illegally ferrying other voters’ ballots to polls.
“They’re running scared,” Luis Marquez, a retired police officer and school board member running for reelection in San Luis, said of voters. “They feel they’re going to get nailed if they do something wrong.”
As early voting began last month, Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced that two more San Luis residents — one of them a current city councilwoman — had been indicted on charges of ballot abuse during the 2020 primary election. Separately, the Yuma County sheriff is investigating 26 potential voting cases across this county in Southwest Arizona.
José Castro, a local Baptist pastor, has been trying to persuade his congregants to go to the polls. Two longtime friends, Tere Varela and Maria Robles, normally visit a senior center during elections to guide Spanish-speaking retirees through the ballots. But they said they were planning to stay away in November.
“We don’t want to help,” Robles said one recent afternoon. “We’re afraid.”
“Is that the purpose of this?” Varela asked. “To keep us from voting?”
San Luis offers a glimpse into the tensions unfurling across this strained democracy as Election Day approaches. So far, more than 33 million early votes have been cast nationwide with few reported problems, but there have also been flashes of volatility: election workers have been threatened, poll watchers have staked out ballot boxes and elected officials are girding for challenges to the legitimacy of the midterm results.
Arizona was a flash point in Trump’s voter fraud claims immediately after the 2020 presidential election, and the scene of a divisive partisan audit of ballots. Crowds of angry, armed Trump supporters gathered nightly outside election offices.
Since then, Republican nominees for statewide office have spread falsehoods about election fraud, and several voters have filed complaints saying that they had been filmed and questioned by strangers at ballot drop boxes. The volunteer poll watchers, some masked or armed, described themselves as there for “election security.” Their presence is part of an organized national effort by conservative groups galvanized by lies that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
The authorities in the Phoenix area have stepped up security in response. The sheriff of Maricopa County has referred two incidents to prosecutors, and said his officers would sit outside polling places “if that’s what we have to do to protect democracy.”
Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who is also Arizona’s Democratic candidate for governor, has referred 18 voter-intimidation complaints to the U.S. Justice Department. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Arizona restricted election-monitoring activists from filming voters, carrying weapons near polling sites or spreading election falsehoods online.
The upheaval over voting in San Luis erupted shortly after the 2020 primaries. That year, the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office announced on Aug. 7 that it had opened an investigation in coordination with the attorney general’s office after local elections officials received complaints of election tampering.
Some of those complaints had originated with two local Republicans, David Lara and Gary García Snyder.
After they complained to law enforcement, Snyder and Lara said they were contacted by two leaders with True the Vote, a conservative vote-monitoring group based in Houston that for years has promoted false claims of rampant fraud. The organization’s leaders, Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips, traveled to Arizona later in 2020 to meet with Snyder and Lara, the men said.
Inspired by what they heard in Yuma, True the Vote focused on proving, through voter fraud, the existence of an elaborate national conspiracy to manipulate the outcome of the presidential election — a theory since debunked by experts, governmental agencies and media outlets that have looked into it.
This spring, Salem Media Group, a conservative media company, and the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza released “2,000 Mules,” which centered on Engelbrecht, Phillips and their claims. In the film, an unidentified woman from San Luis appears, saying that the city’s elections have been “fixed” for years by local politicians running a cash-for-votes scheme.
Fuentes, the former San Luis mayor, and the woman seen on the video with her, Alma Juarez, were charged in December 2020 with violating Arizona’s ballot abuse law. Earlier this year, they each pleaded guilty to one count of ballot abuse, for accepting four ballots of other San Luis residents.
Fuentes became the first person in Arizona sentenced to jail time under the law, enacted in 2016. Fuentes’ lawyer, Anne Chapman, criticized the sentence as “an unjust result in a political prosecution.”
Activists with the Arizona Voter Empowerment Task Force, a voter-rights group, said the law prohibiting “ballot harvesting” had the effect of criminalizing ballot collection efforts that had helped older residents and people with disabilities in rural and low-income communities like San Luis get their ballots to the polls.
While more than 80% of Arizona voters typically cast early ballots, many of them through the mail, there is no home-mail delivery in San Luis, limited public transportation and many people do not have cars, making it harder to vote.
Fuentes has many admirers in San Luis who praised her for fighting to register and turn out voters.
She first ran for office in 1994 and served multiple terms on the City Council and was still on the school board when she was sentenced last month to 30 days in jail. Now, she will be barred from holding elected office or voting.
“My mom is not a criminal,” said her daughter, Lizette Esparza. “It’s a political persecution.”
Fuentes had also been charged with forgery and conspiracy, but ultimately pleaded guilty only to a charge relating to ballot collection. A sentencing report from her defense team said she was “extremely remorseful for her involvement in this matter” but had done nothing fraudulent. Her lawyers wrote that in the Election Day video in which Fuentes handled another voter’s ballot, she was actually checking to make sure the ovals were properly filled.
But other residents said the criminal investigation shined light on real corruption and bare-knuckle politics inside their city. In 2012, for example, Fuentes and others in city government challenged a political rival’s ability to hold office based on her limited English proficiency.
In interviews, several residents said they had grown cynical about politics in San Luis. They felt that local officials hoarded power and traded votes for government jobs and benefits. In a court filing, prosecutors with the attorney general’s office said the video of Fuentes indicated she had been “running a modern-day political machine seeking to influence the outcome of the municipal election in San Luis, collecting votes through illegal methods.”
Nieves Riedel, who runs a prominent home-construction business, is a Democrat who rejects lies about the 2020 election. But she was also convinced that some of her city’s leaders had for years tilted local races and manipulated voters into casting ballots for powerful incumbents.
“Was voter fraud being committed in the city of San Luis? Yes,” she said. “But not at the national level. It’s small-town politics.”
Over the summer, Riedel won an election to become San Luis’ next mayor. She said she was concerned with improving the jammed two-lane roads and providing better jobs and colleges to keep young adults from leaving. She said she was dismayed, but not surprised, to see outsiders latch onto her city’s troubles for their own ends.
“Both parties are capitalizing on this, to settle scores and prove points,” Riedel said. “I can assure you that both parties can care less about the people of San Luis.”
As voting gets underway in San Luis and the candidates for City Council and school board knock doors and plant campaign signs along the desert roads, Lara said he would again be on the hunt for irregularities. He is coordinating efforts to monitor the main ballot drop box in San Luis.
“We have our people,” he said, but declined to be more precise about their activities. “We don’t want to tip off the enemy.”