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Big questions about voting rights — and short-term rentals — splinter tiny Colorado town of Pitkin

Colorado's deputy secretary of state has called for a federal investigation of Voting Rights Act violations after Gunnison County's DA prosecuted eight people for improperly voting in town's first trustee election in a decade.

Main Street in the small Gunnison County town of Pitkin, elevation 9,242 feet and population of less than 100 year-round residents. In 2016 the town held its first municipal election in a decade. Controversy arose over short-term rentals and 10 voters were reported for improperly casting ballots. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Trouble began brewing in the Colorado mountain town of Pitkin the way trouble often begins in small towns: in a debate over the prospect of change.

When the tiny Gunnison County municipality held its first trustee election in a decade, the April 2016 vote was really a referendum on whether or not to allow short-term rentals.

After the contest, someone reported 10 voters to local prosecutors, claiming they had homes elsewhere and therefore had voted illegally in the election that replaced five of Pitkin’s six trustees.

When the district attorney’s office charged eight of the 10 voters with perjury and casting ballots in the wrong precinct, it set off even more drama. The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office got involved, asking questions about voter intimidation and suppression and calling for a federal investigation.

Dan Hotsenpiller, the Seventh Judicial District Attorney, says it’s his duty under state law to investigate and prosecute cases of improper voting.

“Colorado law is clear,” he told The Colorado Sun.

But one of the state’s top elections officials is asking the U.S. Attorney’s office in Colorado to investigate whether the federal Voting Rights Act was violated in the town of about 100 full-time residents.

“It’s the most egregious example of voter intimidation I’ve seen,” said Deputy Colorado Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert, the No. 2 voting official in the state.

Battles over short-term rentals in Colorado are nothing new. They’ve happened in every corner of the state. But this is the first time the friction has led to allegations of improper voting on a large scale, fracturing a town and setting up the potential for a major legal showdown.

(And only about five homes in Pitkin — or 3 percent of houses in town — are used as short-term rentals.)

At the center of the rancor is an important legal question about the ability of people who own multiple homes in Colorado to vote and where — not to mention whether those caught up in the Pitkin rift can cast ballots in this November’s election without facing prosecution.

Pitkin was established in 1879 and is the oldest continuously operating town on the Western Slope. It is thought to be Colorado’s oldest mining town (once called Quartzville) and is named after Frederick W. Pitkin, the state’s second governor. Pitkin has a full-time population of about 100 people, down from the 1,000 souls who lived there in the 1880s when mining in the area was at a peak.  (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The controversy in Pitkin, located about 30 miles northeast of Gunnison, came to the attention of the Secretary of State’s Office over the summer.

That was just as Marie Rossmiller was heading into a two-day trial in Gunnison County court, where a judge found that she had voted improperly back in the 2016 Pitkin municipal election and sentenced her to 48 hours of useful public service.

“I just want to quote Ecclesiastes 3:1,” Rossmiller said as the sentence was being handed down, according to court transcripts. “There is a time and purpose for everything.”

Rossmiller, 74, was the only one of those charged who didn’t plead guilty. She wanted to fight back.

She was born and raised in Pitkin but eventually moved to Aurora. When her parents died, some of their properties in the town became hers, including a house.

“My husband and I got the title about the year 2000, and we’ve been paying taxes on that and making that our transition home,” she said. “It’s my residence.”

Marie Rossmiller, 74, was one of 10 people reported to local prosecutors for investigation of improperly casting ballots in Pitkin. She says she was reported because she lives in Aurora during the winter. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

She started to become active in local issues ahead of the 2016 municipal elections, which were growing heated because some people in town were more welcoming toward tourism and short-term rentals, like those offered by online platforms such as Airbnb and VRBO. Others were more hesitant about the prospect of more outsiders visiting the town along the snaking Quartz Creek in the Gunnison National Forest.

(Gunnison’s County clerk says there are currently about 120 active, registered voters in Pitkin.)

Eventually, Rossmiller said she decided to change her voter registration from Arapahoe County to Gunnison County so she could vote in Pitkin. She says she was guided through the process in a phone call with someone in the Gunnison County Clerk and Recorder’s office.

It was Pitkin’s first election in 10 years. The political status quo hadn’t been challenged often, and elections were canceled in years when there were no contested races for trustee.

But suddenly, there were 12 candidates for six trustee seats.

“It was kind of a big deal to have an election, and we had a lot of candidates running,” Pitkin Mayor Rachel New said of the contest that put her on the town board. “The controversy that kind of put into question the efficiency of the council and brought about the desire for an election finally was related to short-term rentals.”

All five of Pitkin’s newly elected trustees were more open to short-term rentals.

“People very much voted for who they felt would be representing their perspectives about rentals in our election,” she said. “It was very divisive. It definitely split the town.”

Chris Nasso owns The Silver Plume General Store, which is called The Plume by locals. “People here don’t have the time or money to fight this stuff,” Nasso said. “The voting issue has become very divisive. People are being intimidated  and I see it as a methodical trampling on our rights and freedoms.” (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Pitkin used a mail-in ballot in the election, Rossmiller said.

“I went in there. My name was on the list as an eligible voter, and I turned in my ballot,” she said.

But there was trouble right away, she said.

Marie Rossmiller, wearing a button showing her political activism. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Rossmiller says she typically lives in Aurora during the winter because an adrenal-gland syndrome makes the cold tough to bear. But the rest of the year she resides in Pitkin.

Poll watchers accused her of voting in a precinct she didn’t live in.

“Some of the folks who were watchers of the elections told me I got challenged,” Rossmiller said.

About a year later she received a letter from prosecutors saying she was being charged.

Hotsenpiller, the district attorney, says it isn’t uncommon for his office to receive and investigate complaints of improper voting in his district, which covers six counties and nearly 10,000 square miles.

“That occurs in a regular basis, in every election all the time,” he said. “We get notified of voter challenges and other concerns about voting and voting irregularities or improprieties from numerous different sources.”

Hotsenpiller’s office investigated the Pitkin claims and found grounds to charge eight voters. Seven pleaded guilty.

“They stood in a court of law in front of a county court judge,” he said. “No one was forcing them to do anything.”

Hotsenpiller said improper-voting cases typically are resolved with a warning or some kind of notification to the voter about what they allegedly did wrong.

The situation in Pitkin was different.

Hotsenpiller said the investigation found emails and other communication between voters.

“There is evidence that this was a concerted group of people who communicated ahead of the election that they were intending to do this,” Hotsenpiller said. “There were some concerns for us that made it inappropriate to simply tell them: ‘Hey, don’t do it again.’ ”

Hotsenpiller says those who agreed to plead guilty or no contest were given deferred sentences, which means the charges will only show up on their records as dismissed.

“They were never arrested,” he said. “They never went to jail. They were never booked. There really will be no record at all of this.”

Hotsenpiller says the issue is one he has heard about in other surrounding communities.

“This is what we see happening in our small mountain communities, in particular throughout Western Colorado,” he said. “I know this is happening in other judicial districts because I talk to other district attorneys. The interests of the group of people who have a second or third homes are often different and divergent from the people who live there on a full-time basis.”

Chaffee County Clerk and Recorder Lori Mitchell, who is head of the Colorado County Clerk’s Association, said she has not heard other county election officials say they have experienced similar problems.

According to Marie Rossmiller and her husband, Mark, the controversy over short-term rentals began with this home at 724 State St. in Pitkin. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Staiert, the deputy secretary of state, says Hotsenpiller has interpreted the law incorrectly and that the Pitkin prosecutions were unwarranted and unjust.

“There is no requirement that you sleep a certain number of days to be able to vote there,” she told The Sun. “The test is the place that you regularly return to, that you intend to make your home.”

There could be problems if someone was registered to vote, or tried to vote, in two places, but Staiert said that wasn’t the case in Pitkin.

“They all have drivers licenses there,” said Staiert, who visited Pitkin last month. “They have property there, with voter registrations there, who sit on town boards and participate in town activities and are obviously members of the community. Even if they were they aren’t spending the majority of their time there, it’s not for you to go around and monitor their electricity usage and intimidate them and their voters.”

The City Hall building in the town of Pitkin. Deputy Colorado Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert says if the people charged with improper voting in Pitkin can’t vote in the tiny town, “I don’t know where else these people are supposed to vote.” (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun).

On Sept. 26, Staiert sent a declaratory order to Hotsenpiller saying that four of the people who were prosecuted, including Rossmiller, were properly registered and had the right to vote in Pitkin. It added that any similar elector — say the four others who pleaded guilty — has the same right.

MORE: Read the declaratory order from Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert

“They were prosecuted because (people in the town) didn’t like the way they voted,” she said. “I don’t know where else these people are supposed to vote.”

Hotsenpiller vehemently denies that the voters were targeted because of the way they cast their votes. (He also says he doesn’t know what was on the spring 2016 municipal election ballot.)

“It’s not about precluding people from voting,” he said. “It is about Colorado laws.”

The Secretary of State’s office has asked federal prosecutors in Denver to investigate whether voter intimidation occured in Pitkin.

In the meantime, high-profile Denver civil rights attorney David Lane told The Colorado Sun he is looking at the case and whether to take legal action on behalf of the voters who were prosecuted.

But Hotsenpiller won’t back down.

“This office will not be intimidated from doing its job, which is to investigate crime and election law violations in the Seventh Judicial District, by threats of some kind of investigation,” he said. “That’s out there, and I’m clear about that. Secondly, we welcome any investigation. We are happy to tell anyone from the U.S. Attorney’s office exactly what happened here. We charged eight people, and all eight of those people, in a court of law, there was a determination that they had violated Colorado law.”

Rossmiller said she won’t back down, either. She cast a ballot in the June midterms, she said, and will vote in November, when the Pitkin ballot includes a question about where short-term rentals should be allowed in town.

Marie Rossmiller, left, and her husband Mark, right, at their home in Pitkin. She said she followed the rules before she voted in the 2016 election and won’t back down. “Nobody can take my voting rights away from me.” (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It’s my constitutional right,” she said. “You know, I’m not doing anything wrong. I registered right. I followed the statutes. I am going to stick with my guns — that nobody can take my voting rights away from me.”

Rossmiller, who is semi-retired, said she has no plans to leave Pitkin — “(I) even have a cemetery plot.”

Rising Sun

This story was updated at 12:15 p.m. on Oct. 8, 2018, to correct a reporting error in a quote. Deputy Colorado Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert said voters in Pitkin had their electricity usage monitored as part of the investigation.

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