Voting where your heart is, not where you live

DA decides part-timers illegally voted in mountain town election

Snow piled around front porch a tell-tale sign

by Allen Best

MONTEZUMA, Colo. – Home may be where the heart is, as the adage goes. But where you vote is where you conduct most of your affairs.

That’s the take-away message from a case in the Colorado town of Montezuma. There, five people have been told they illegally registered to vote in municipal elections held April 1. District Attorney Bruce Brown has ordered them to remove their registration in Summit County.

“Some of the people who we determined had committed these violations had good intentions,” says Brown. “They wanted to be more connected to the community and express themselves at the ballot box.”

But good intentions are not the same as following the law.

Montezuma was founded in 1865 as base camp for gold and silver mines nearby. Unlike so many other mining camps that have moldered back into the forest duff once the minerals were extracted, Montezuma continued a sometimes thin existence until downhill skiing arrived after World War II. The town is located at an elevation of 10,400 feet between the Keystone and Arapahoe Basin ski areas.

Unpaved and raw, a place of free-running dogs and no-longer-running cars, Montezuma is a town that still has a true mud season. Some said it was a mud-slinging election. Issues heated sufficiently that some long-term property owners who had never voted in town elections before registered to vote in Summit County. There were also allegations that some town trustees were, in fact, non-residents.

After examining allegations of fraud  against 18 voters, Brown announced in late June that 5 of them had violated the law by registering to vote in the wrong county. He promised to defer prosecution if they re-registered to vote elsewhere.

The Colorado law governing voting specifies that a person can vote at a place of his or her principal or primary residence. “The residence given for voting purposes shall be the same as the residence given for motor vehicle registration and for state income tax purposes,” the law specifies.

Other criteria include:

• business pursuits, employment and income sources;

• age and marital status;

• residence of parents, spouse or civil union partner and children;

• time spent at each residence;

The onus is on the individual to know, says Andrew Cole, of the Colorado Secretary of State office. “You don’t want to trap somebody if they’re unaware, but voting is an important right, and along with that comes the responsibility to know whether you’re doing it right.”

Cole says lawmakers have been forced to confront several tricky areas: Should students be allowed to vote in places they attend school? And what about people in the military, who can be assigned to other locations for extended periods of time.

Even trickier is the case of children born to U.S. citizens while they’re outside the United States. That was the case of John McCain, who was born on the Coco Solo submarine base in Panama.

U.S. law says that children of citizens, no matter where their birth, shall also be U.S. citizens and enjoy voting rights. But, if they’re never been to the United States, in what elections are they entitled to vote?

Testing state law

Colorado legislators last year passed a law that allows same-day voter registration. The law came under colorful fire by Jon Caldara. A resident of Boulder and president of the brashly conservative Independence Institute, Caldara rented a room for a week at property of a former Republican lawmaker in Colorado Springs and then registered to vote.

“I’ll see what the town is like,” Caldara told The Denver Post after changing his voter registration. “I’ve heard great things about it. I’m looking forward to checking out Colorado Springs.”

Caldara didn’t vote in the election at hand, the recall of State Sen. John Morse, who was targeted for his leadership in passing gun-control measures, He was the first state lawmaker to be removed from office in that way.

Caldara proclaimed vindication in calling attention to the ambiguity of the law. He predicted a “Great Voter Migration of 2014” as both Republicans and Democrats “moved” from districts where their candidates had safe majorities to districts where they could make a difference.

His stunt prompted an investigation by the state attorney general’s office. The Denver Post reported in January that investigators decided against charging him with criminal misconduct, but a letter by Attorney General John Suthers, also a Republican, described Caldara’s living arrangement as “suspicious” and noted that it was questionable that he ever intended to become an El Paso County resident.

In the Montezuma case, Brown studied the objective criteria defined by the law such as motor vehicle registration. His staff also visited the homes of the newly registered property owners in Montezuma. “If I look at a home and see eight feet of snow around the front door, it gives less credence to the statement that they go here every weekend,” says Brown.

What homeowners said

The Summit Daily News talked with several of the individuals who had switched voter registrations, and they don’t seem to agree that they were guilty of anything wrong.

Two are professors at Colorado State University and have a home in nearby Loveland. They have owned property in Montezuma since 1986. Lenora Bohren said she and her husband, William Parton, think residency is defined by where someone wants to belong, not where they live due to professional obligation.

“We have been involved in the Montezuma community for years and years and years, and we think as property owners we should be able to vote on local issues.”

Another couple, from Colorado Springs, are also educators, teaching at the U.S. Air Force Academy and at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. They said they believed they were being legal. “We just wanted to do what was right for our Summit County neighbors.”

Brown said he gets a few complaints every election about voter fraud, mostly allegations that non-U.S. citizens are voting.

”I would say the numbers are increasing in frequency, because the process of voting is as hot an issue now as it was during the Civil Rights era,” he says. “I hope the message we sent … is that people are out there looking over your shoulder to require that you are exercising your right lawfully.”

He also noted that there are more allegations of voter fraud in the more populous counties in his district, which includes Clear Creek, Summit, Eagle, and Lake. The political divide isn’t as steep in smaller communities, because they’re small enough for greater mixing. “We all get together during summer Sunday evenings,” he said.

You’d think that Montezuma, with all of 60-some residents, would be such a place of electoral tranquility. On that, you’d be wrong.

Mountain Village may be only Colorado town to allow non-resident votes

When Mountain Village was incorporated in 1995, the town charter had a novel twist among Colorado cities and towns: it gave non-resident property owners the right to vote.

“I have fielded many calls by others who are considering trying to make the change,” says Jackie Kennefick, the director of administration. “I think that made it a lot easier that we started out that way from the beginning rather than for a town or city that wants to go back and change. Roughly 50 percent of our voters are residents and 50 percent are non-residents.”

It is believed to be the only town in Colorado to allow non-residents to vote.

The vote is not extended to a trust, partnership or other legal instrument. Voters must be owners of real property for 30 consecutive days immediately prior to the election.

The requirement that a person must have owned at least 50 percent of the fee title interest in the property would seem to exclude time-share ownerships. Ownership of parking spaces, charitable facilities, and hotel units are excluded.

 

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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