A judge dismissed a felony charge Monday against a Hollister
woman accused of voting twice for Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz in
the controversial District 5 supervisor election last March.
Hollister – A judge dismissed a felony charge Monday against a Hollister woman accused of voting twice for Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz in the controversial District 5 supervisor election last March.

The District Attorney’s Office was pursuing felony charges of voting twice against Maria Guadalupe Araujo, a 37-year-old mother of two. She faced up to three years in prison for the incident she said was an honest mistake. San Benito County Superior Court Judge Tom Breen agreed with her, reducing the charge to a misdemeanor and then dropping it all together.

“The court finds there isn’t any intent here,” Breen said. “There was a mistake in the voting process. Mistakes don’t happen a lot, but they happen. And this was a mistake.”

Araujo was all smiles as she and her husband, Albert, left the court room Monday morning. “I’m so happy they saw it was an honest mistake,” she said. “I just want the community to know it’s OK to vote.”

Araujo’s attorney, John O’Brien, cheerfully told his client to go home and put the entire ordeal behind her before stating that he believed the charges never should have been filed in the first place.

“This is a case that I volunteered to defend, because from my initial review it was really apparent that a crime had not been committed,” O’Brien said. “(Araujo) is a Hispanic, and many Hispanics don’t vote. Filing these charges tend to intimidate Hispanic voters, making it less likely that they will vote in future elections. I have urged Maria to continue to exercise her privilege to vote. Hopefully she’ll continue to do so.”

District Attorney John Sarsfield filed charges against Araujo in December, just weeks after filing four felony charges against Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz for election forgery in the District 5 election. De La Cruz beat former Supervisor Bob Cruz by only 10 votes in the primary election. De La Cruz’s victory touched off a heated political fight over irregularities in the election. Though several felony charges were filed against De La Cruz, the struggle ended with the supervisor pleading no contest to one misdemeanor charge of obstructing a police officer.

Sarsfield accused Araujo of mailing in an absentee ballot and voting at the polls on Election Day at the behest of De La Cruz’s supporters, which Araujo denied. Araujo said she didn’t think her absentee ballot had been mailed in, so she voted on Election Day also.

Sarsfield said his office will review the court transcripts and conduct further research to determine if a legal error was made. He said one of his options is to refile another felony charge, because felonies can be charged twice.

“We’re distressed,” he said. “We’ll be reviewing to see if a legal error was made, and consider our options at that point.” Sarsfield said he doesn’t believe the charges should intimidate citizens from voting, but did express distrust in the elections office.

“It’s pretty clear the elections department needs to clean up their act,” Sarsfield said. “I think people should be real concerned about what’s going on in the elections department.”

O’Brien, who asked the judge to first drop the felony charge to a misdemeanor so it couldn’t be refiled again before dismissing it, said if Sarsfield files the charge again, he’ll lose.

“Some people never learn,” O’Brien said.

During Monday’s preliminary hearing, which is arranged like a trial, Breen heard testimony to determine if Araujo’s actions warranted criminal charges. Sheriff’s Deputy Patty Egan, who took Araujo’s statement when the complaint was first filed, testified that Araujo filled out her absentee ballot a couple weeks before the March election. But on her way to the post office to mail it, along with some other bills, she somehow misplaced it and thought it had not been mailed. Because of this, she went to the polls on Election Day to make sure she voted, Egan said.

Head Elections Officer John Hodges briefly testified that the elections department discovered Araujo’s ballots after all the ballots had been received the day after the election. But it was elections clerk Kim Hawk who testified at length as to how the mistake occurred in the first place.

Because Araujo had been issued an absentee ballot, poll workers should have given her a provisional ballot at the polling place, which they failed to do, Hawk said. If a provisional ballot is received, election workers check to see if an absentee ballot also was turned in. Because the wrong ballot was issued at the polls, nothing was checked and both ballots were counted, she said. Araujo

The day Araujo voted, the inspector at the polls at San Andreas School had a heart attack and several other inspectors had to come in and take over. While there was no log to show when Araujo voted and if the chaos created by the inspector’s heart attack caused the confusion, she was issued the wrong ballot nonetheless, Hawk said.

Deputy District Attorney Candice Hooper argued that trained poll workers are supposed to issue a provisional ballot only if the person tells them there has been a problem with their absentee ballot, but Hawk said there was no way to know if Araujo had informed the workers or not.

Araujo’s husband said it was obvious from the get-go that the whole thing was a mistake, and he believes Sarsfield never should have filed the charge. But he said he didn’t feel it was appropriate to “bad mouth” the prosecutor or the election workers for a “human error that could have happened to anyone.”

And while the couple were elated to go home with the matter behind them, Araujo said the past few months have been frustrating and beyond stressful.

“Even though I knew I was innocent, sometimes they do injustices to people and I was thinking, ‘What if it happens to me,'” she said. “I just really appreciate what my lawyer did for me. There are still good people in this community.”

Erin Musgrave covers public safety for the Free Lance. Reach her at 637-5566, ext. 336 or [email protected].

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.


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