An elderly woman pleaded guilty on Monday to filling out other people’s mail-in ballots for the mayor’s race while working at Miami-Dade’s elections department.
Now, a judge must decide whether to give 74-year-old Gladys Coego jail time.
Prosecutors want six months behind bars. Her defense lawyer is arguing for no time in jail.
“This is a very serious case,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Alberto Milián told Coego. “This is a very serious matter that undermines the basis of our democratic institutions.”
Milián will decide a sentence on Aug. 16. Coego faces a maximum of 10 years in prison but such a harsh sentence is unlikely because she has no previous arrests.
In a case that got national attention, Coego was arrested for voter fraud just weeks before the November election. It was a campaign season marked by heightened sensitivity after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump made repeated allegations of a rigged election.
Although there’s never been any evidence of widespread voter fraud in the United States, Trump has persisted with his claims, even creating a controversial commission to investigate the issue. Earlier this month, the Presidential Advisory Commission for Voter Integrity raised concerns about privacy by requesting voter information from states across the country, including Florida.
Coego’s case mirrors that of a woman in Oregon who was arrested four years ago for marking someone else’s ballot while working at an elections department. She accepted a plea deal that include 90 days in jail.
Coego was arrested along with another low-level campaigner, Tomika Curgil, in an unrelated case. Curgil, an out-of-work security guard campaigning for a pro-medical marijuana campaign, was accused of filling out forged voter registration forms. She got probation, with no felony conviction appearing on her record.
Coego’s crime was much more egregious.
She was hired by a temp agency to work as an elections support specialist, to be paid $14.69 an hour. Her job was to open, count and sort vote-by-mail absentee ballots at the Miami-Dade election office in Doral.
According to police, fellow workers saw her marking absentee ballots for Miami-Dade mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado, who failed in her bid to oust incumbent Carlos Gimenez. She used a pen smuggled into the ballot-sorting room inside her purse.
She did not have any connections to the Regalado campaign, authorities said. The evidence against Coego was significant, pushing her to admit to two felony counts of marking another voter’s absentee ballot.
Assistant Public Defender Jennifer LeFebvre told the judge that her elderly client worked as a janitor cleaning a church and had early signs of dementia. “She has lived her life without violating the law,” LeFebvre told the judge. “This is an isolated incident.”
But public-corruption prosecutor Devon Helfmeyer, in a filing to the court, argued that Coego knew exactly what she was doing, sitting in the back of the ballot-sorting room with a smuggled pen.
“The defendant did not just alter one ballot,” Helfmeyer wrote. “Over the course of two days, the defendant repeatedly and unlawfully voted in the mayoral election, against the wishes of the legitimate electors.”