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Politics and Government

Illegal voting conviction in small Colorado town that prompted call for federal investigation is overturned

Marie Rossmiller was convicted last year of voting in the wrong precinct of tiny Pitkin. In May, a judge ruled that the case had been improperly handled by a lower court.

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)
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A judge has overturned the illegal voting conviction of a woman from a small Colorado mountain town in a case that grabbed headlines last year and prompted state officials to ask for a federal investigation into a district attorney.

A Gunnison County District Court judge ruled last month that a lower court erred when it found Marie Rossmiller guilty of the misdemeanor charge of voting in the wrong precinct. District Court Judge D. Cory Jackson sent the case back to the lower court for a new verdict to be issued.

While the case’s outcome still remains up in the air, the ruling marks a major victory for a handful of people from the tiny Gunnison County town of Pitkin, which has a population of about 100 year-round residents, who have been embroiled in a multi-year battle over their ability to legally vote.

It also could serve as a benchmark for other cases involving residency and elections and where Colorado residents with multiple homes can cast ballots.

“I’m trusting my lord,” Rossmiller said in a brief interview Monday. “I’m trusting my God that he’s on my side. I followed the rules of my municipality.”

Rossmiller’s conviction stemmed from her vote cast in an April 2016 municipal election in Pitkin. She submitted a ballot in what was the town’s first trustee election in a decade and in what amounted to a referendum on whether or not to allow short-term rentals, like Airbnb.

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

Rossmiller is a Pitkin native. Around the year 2000, she inherited property, including a house, in Pitkin and had been living there in the summer, and spending winters in Aurora. In 2016, with the help of the Gunnison County Clerk’s office, she changed her voter registration from Arapahoe County so she could vote in Pitkin’s elections.

After she cast her ballot, a complaint was filed with the 7th Judicial District Attorney’s Office about Rossmiller and nine other voters. Eight were eventually charged with improper voting.

All pleaded guilty except for Rossmiller, who took the case to trial and lost in the summer of 2018. She was sentenced to 48 hours of useful public service.

Rossmiller appealed and drew the attention of the Colorado secretary of state’s office, which sent a terse letter to the district attorney and followed up by requesting that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado investigate whether the Voting Rights Act had been violated.

Judge Jackson overturned the conviction because he found the lower court didn’t take into account the intent of Rossmiller’s residency. Jackson also said in his May 13 ruling that the lower court failed to determine whether Rossmiller intended to commit fraud, a necessary element for a conviction of voting in the wrong precinct.

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)

Then-Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert called the case “the most egregious example of voter intimidation I’ve seen.”

Dan Hotsenpiller, the 7th Judicial District Attorney who oversaw Rossmiller’s prosecution, fiercely defended his office’s actions and said the group of people it decided to charge had clearly violated Colorado law.

“There is evidence that this was a concerted group of people who communicated ahead of the election that they were intending to do this,” he told The Colorado Sun last year.

The Gunnison County Court has not set a date to reconsider Rossmiller’s conviction.

Hotsenpiller’s office, meanwhile, has asked the Colorado Supreme Court to extend a deadline allowing it to petition the state’s highest court to intervene in the case. Hotsenpiller now has until Aug. 19 to ask the Supreme Court to get involved after the panel agreed to extend the time limit.

“It’s all in a holding pattern,” said Sherry McKenzie, a spokeswoman for Hotsenpiller.

Rossmiller said she wants to move on. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.

Messages left with Hotsenpiller seeking an interview or comment were not returned Monday.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado declined to comment.

Rising Sun