Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Pitkin voter issue goes to U.S. attorney’s office for review

Accusations of political motivation from both DA and Secretary of State 

By Katherine Nettles

The U.S Attorney’s office is now investigating a case of possible voter suppression of at least four residents in the town of Pitkin, a small town in Gunnison County.

The matter reached this point after the local district attorney investigated a number of people who were reported to be voting inappropriately in a 2016 municipal election in the town of Pitkin. Of 10 people, eight ended up with misdemeanor guilty charges.

But two of those individuals, along with two others who came forward to say they were told not to vote, petitioned the Colorado secretary of state’s office in a complaint. As a result, Colorado Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert issued an order declaring all four were in fact eligible to vote. The citizens claim they were subjected to a concerted effort to keep them from voting, while the DA says he is just doing his job.

Their votes had been challenged, “based on residency questions regarding how many days a year they reside in Pitkin,” according to the order signed by Staiert.

Those residents, Douglas Bower and Marie Rossmiller and two others who reportedly were also told they could not vote in Pitkin, petitioned the secretary of state’s office asking for intervention and clarification about their eligibility. Each is listed in the declaration as a Pitkin homeowner with a vehicle(s) registered in Pitkin, tax forms filed using their Pitkin address, and updated voter registration for Pitkin as well. The secretary of state’s office wrote a letter to the DA’s office, stating, “Some residents allege that the district attorney’s office went to extraordinary lengths to try to prove they were not legitimate voters. Some say they had been told they could not vote in November.”

“It’s clear that they are indeed residents and therefore entitled to vote in November’s election,” Staiert said. The secretary of state order stated that these were “politically motivated voter issues,” and Staiert said the political motivation was to target voters based on their positions regarding a ballot issue for the upcoming election. Specifically, one of the municipal measures would prohibit short-term rentals in the town’s residential district and allow them in the business district only.

“The people who were challenged were all on one side,” said Staiert. “They [presumably local officials] had a predetermined list going into the election.”

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams wrote, “My top priority as secretary of state is to ensure that every Coloradan can exercise his or her right to vote. No amount of intimidation or voter suppression will be tolerated.”

Seventh Judicial District district attorney Dan Hotsenpiller called the allegations unfounded. “The DA office is statutorily required to investigate voter misconduct/election violations,” he said. “We get several allegations regarding voting irregularities every election. Sometimes hundreds,” he said. He said it was unusual to have irregularities based on whether or not voters have voted in the right place, and that more often it has to do with signature irregularities, such as a person signing for his or her spouse.

Hotsenpiller emphasized that his office investigating or even charging someone does not change the election. “We don’t decide that a vote counts or not—just if there is sufficient evidence that a violation has occurred,” he said. He recalled receiving 10 challenges based on residency from Pitkin officials from the April 2016 municipal election. Officials stated they did not believe the individuals’ primary residence was in Gunnison County or in the town of Pitkin. Hotsenpiller said that of the 10 challenges, eight were determined to be in violation and prosecuted accordingly. He also emphasized that, as the DA of six counties, his office doesn’t focus on particulars of politics in small towns.

“We don’t have any idea what the political issues are…in the town of Pitkin. There were voters that were challenged by people who are election judges…and then the town of Pitkin clerks usually inform us of issues that have been raised in the last election,” he said.

“Let’s be really clear here. We are investigating crimes, crimes that have been defined by Colorado legislature,” said Hotsenpiller. He said that investigating people in this case meant putting together a larger picture including, “Where they have voted in the past, where they work, what they tell people… looking at a front door, finding the front door boarded up, when the resident claims it is their primary residence…that is a relevant fact. That is an important piece of evidence.” He also said his office’s conduct has been tested through the criminal process and was raised during this trial, but found to be appropriate.

Hotsenpiller said he has no doubt this was politically motivated, but in a reverse way from what was stated by the secretary of state office. He described that there are many places where second or third homeowners are conflicted about local elections, and wanting to take part in them to benefit their investments.

“People have to make a choice…that is the underlying conflict that we see in various communities around Colorado. We just don’t have a system where because you can buy property in more than one jurisdiction you have a right to vote in different places.” Hotsenpiller said he didn’t have any indications that people were targeting voters to suppress their ability to pass or reject ballot measures.

“We cannot say why people report a crime. Some might look back and say that wasn’t a very good motivation. But that doesn’t change that we have a statutory obligation. The secretary of state seems to be saying that I should not have done my job. That would actually weigh in on this election—and say it’s okay to vote even when you’re not supposed to. We tried to carefully evaluate the cases, and made sure we only prosecuted people who had clear violations. And then we tried to respond here in a very measured way. We didn’t over-charge, arrest anyone—that’s been our approach throughout this whole thing,” he said.

Staiert wrote in the order that because Hotsenpiller did not release any records related to any voter challenges or investigations as requested from the secretary’s office, she may also issue a supplemental document with additional voters who are eligible to vote in the upcoming election.

Marie Rossmiller was the only defendant charged by the DA for violating elections statutes who exercised her right to a trial (the other seven pleaded either guilty or no contest). She was found guilty by the court, but said she feels she did nothing wrong.

“I registered at the registered time. I did not register anywhere else. The judge said that my registration for senior property tax exemptions had not been changed in time, but I was … only charged with an unclassified misdemeanor,” she said. “I know exactly why I was challenged … They wanted to keep control of the town board. I think they figured out who would vote against them.”

Rossmiller said the ballot measure regarding short-term rentals “is a big part of it, in my own opinion. But not all of it.”

The matter has been taken over for investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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