Elections, Featured, Original Report, Politics, Sherrie Peif

Pitkin woman says politics behind wrong-precinct voting prosecution; 2nd appeal ongoing

GUNNISON COUNTY — A more than 4-year old legal battle over whether a woman in the small southwestern Colorado community of Pitkin voted improperly appears headed to another appeal after a Gunnison County judge found her guilty for a second time of voting in the wrong precinct.

But the  woman at the center of the case believes her prosecution is politically motivated and says the basis for the initial charges brought by District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller is questionable, and not applied equally to all residents in the 7th Judicial District.

In fact, voting records show at least one well-known Hollywood celebrity with a residence in Gunnison County, who despite owning homes across the country, has consistently voted in Colorado’s elections. Also questionable is that the woman charged with casting an illegal ballot says she continues to vote in the Pitkin elections without incident.

Marie Rossmiller was charged with voting in the wrong precinct in 2016 after she and several others who also own homes in other places in Colorado were reported to the DA’s office for voting in the Pitkin municipal election in April that year.

Rossmiller, 76 and a registered Republican, believes the entire issue is politically charged and won’t stop appealing until she wins, noting she did not settle as all the others did because of religious beliefs. District Attorney Hotsenpiller, is a registered Democrat.

“First of all, I am a Christian,” Rossmiller said. “It’s wrong to lie as a Christian, and it would be a lie to say I voted in the wrong election.”

The Town of Pitkin, which as of 2018 had just 78 residents, was electing new town trustees who were expected to then decide the fate of short-term rentals, which had become a controversial issue. Rossmiller, who lived the bulk of her life in the town — graduating in from its one-room schoolhouse—voted in that election.

But after receiving complaints from several residents about Rossmiller and several others, Hotsenpiller charged them with a misdemeanor for voting in the wrong election.

All the others charged took a plea bargain, but Rossmiller decided to fight back. She was initially found guilty in county court, but then a district court appeals judge remanded the case back to county court to look at more information. Rossmiller was recently found guilty again by the same county judge. She is now in another appeals process.

At the heart of the issues is that Rossmiller also owns property with her husband in Aurora in Arapahoe County, where she lives less than 50 percent of the year with her husband Mark, she said.

“We are slowly moving back to Pitkin full time,” she said. “We don’t like the big city.”

According to court records, Judge Ashley Burgemeister said Rossmiller believed her vote in Pitkin would have a bigger impact than in Aurora. Rossmiller said that determination was oversimplified. She said she voted in Pitkin because that is where she has always called home and where she believes it is most important to be active.

“This is my home,” Rossmiller said. “I was born here. I have property here. I have volunteered here. For years there have been a lot of bad things going on with those trustees. I just wanted people to play fair.”

To this point, Hotsenpiller’s evidence has hinged on a property tax exemption taken by Rossmiller on the couple’s home in Aurora. Hotsenpiller told Complete Colorado Rossmiller doesn’t get to claim Aurora to be her permanent residence to take the tax exemption and then change to Pitkin to get to vote.

“She was taking a tax credit in Aurora at the same time she was claiming she lived in Pitkin,” Hotsenpiller said. “Am I supposed to ignore that because she just said on April 7, ‘no that was my intent?’ Yes, it is about intent but you have to start with those rules, and you can only have one primary residence at a time.”

Rossmiller calls it a game of words, saying they have done everything by the book.

“We have two homes,” she said. “When I turned 65, I qualified for the discount, but my husband wasn’t 65 yet, so we put it in my name. When he turned 65 we called and asked to put him on it, but they told us they didn’t recommend that. It wouldn’t change anything.”

Rossmiller said much of why she believes her prosecution to be politically motivated is because the only voters challenged in the election were Republicans.

“There are other people here who have homes elsewhere that were not charged,” she said, pointing to a neighbor she said lives in the town only a few weeks a year, but still votes in Pitkin.

More notably, however, is high-powered entertainer Oprah Winfrey, who owns a home in Mountain Village, which although located in San Miguel County is still under Hotsenpiller’s jurisdiction.

According to records obtained by Complete Colorado. Winfrey registered to vote in Mountain Village on Jan. 8, 2016. Although she did not return ballots in the 2017 or 2019 municipal elections, she was sent ballots for both elections.

Winfrey has, however, voted in the last three statewide elections in Colorado, including the 2016 and 2018 general elections as well as the 2020 presidential primary. Even more questionable, perhaps, is all of Winfrey’s ballots — both municipal and state — are not even mailed directly to her. They are mailed in care of the CEO for Weight Watchers to a Hollywood studio lot.

Hotsenpiller said this was the first he had heard of it because he doesn’t seek out voter fraud cases, including Rossmiller’s, and there is no real criteria for determining residence, considering Winfrey owns multiple properties around the country.

“We follow the law,” Hotsenpiller said. “We have an ethical obligation only to file when there is probably cause to believe an offense occurred, and to only prosecute when we believe the evidence is sufficient to obtain a conviction. The system works very well, good checks and balances to make sure they are voting where they should vote.”

He added he does have some concerns around Winfrey but did not say if he would look into them.

“Where we’d be really concerned is if she voted in LA too,” he said.  “Is she also voting in California, Illinois, New York. That is a bigger concern.”

Hotsenpiller said his office sees hundreds of election related issues every election cycle, mostly signature issues, adding someone would need to file a complaint against Winfrey for his office to investigate, as was the case with Rossmiller.

“It’s a matter of education not a matter of fraud,” Hotsenpiller said, adding actual voter fraud is very rare, but tends to occur more often in situations such as Rossmiller’s.

“This can be a particular problem in small rural communities that have a lot of second-home owners,” he said. “We have a fair number of those communities in the 7th judicial. It can cause a real problem when a permanent resident live here all the time and has very different political and economic beliefs from those that live somewhere else in another community.”

Rossmiller said that only reinforces the idea that her charges were solely based on political leanings for that one election, as she has continued to vote in every election since, and more recently, helped organize successful recall efforts against two of the town trustees she had been frustrated with.

“The only voters who were challenged were Republicans,” she said. “Not a single Democrat.”

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