Colorado voting officials feud over alleged security breach

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FILE – In this Oct. 15, 2020, file photo, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold speaks during a news conference about the the state’s efforts to protect the process of casting a vote in the general election in downtown Denver. Griswold announced Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, that Mesa County in western Colorado must replace its election equipment because it is no longer secure after a security breach in the county clerk’s office. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

DENVER (AP) — What began as an investigation into how election equipment passwords from a rural Colorado county got posted on a right wing blog has turned into a feud between the state’s Democratic secretary of state and the county’s conservative clerk.

The elections chief for the northwestern county that includes the city of Grand Junction, Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters, escalated the dispute this week with an appearance at an event hosted by one the biggest backers of baseless election fraud conspiracies promoted by Trump supporters, My Pillow company CEO Mike Lindell.

Peters slammed the investigation of her office, claiming that Griswold is attempting a takeover of Mesa County’s elections in one of Colorado’s last Republican strongholds.

Colorado’s Democratic Secretary of State Jenna Griswold then took her turn in the war-of-words Thursday at a news conference, when she said that Mesa County would have to replace its voting equipment and that Peters was responsible for the security breach.

Griswold said evidence showed that Peters’ office directed staff to turn off video surveillance of its voting equipment before a May 25 software update and that the video was not turned back on until August. No elections were held during that period, but officials are required by state law to maintain video surveillance to ensure no one tampers with the equipment.

Griswold said Peters also allowed a non-employee into the office during the software update “after misleading my office on the person’s employment status,” she added.

Griswold’s office identified the man, but refused to say anything more about who he is or why he was there. The Associated Press isn’t naming him until more information becomes available about him. He has not been charged with a crime.

The dispute is the latest illustration of how the November 2020 election that is a distant memory for many remains front and center for some far-right supporters of former President Donald Trump. A Republican-led audit of Arizona ballots has been going on for months despite any evidence to support the review.

The Colorado feud started to unfold on Monday, when Griswold announced that passwords for Mesa County’s voting equipment had been posted on a far-right blog and that an investigation had been launched to find out what happened.

Griswold called the event a “a serious breach” in a statement, but said it did not happen during the past election or create any risk to state elections.

On Monday, Griswold ordered Peters to hand over Mesa County’s election equipment, video footage of the equipment and other relevant materials to state officials. Peters has not responded, Griswold said Thursday.

But Peters traveled to South Dakota, where she spoke Tuesday at the event hosted by Lindell, the My Pillow chief executive who has become well-known for his unwavering support of Trump and efforts to overturn the 2020 election because of widespread fraud, which a range of election officials across the country including Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, have confirmed did not take place.

“We would be a big jewel in our governor and our Secretary of State’s crown to take over my office and control the way you vote,” said Peters, according to an online video of her appearance.

Colorado has a Democratic governor and a Democrat-dominated Legislature and Peters called Mesa County the state’s “last bastion of freedom.”

At the event with Lindell, Peters said that Griswold’s staff “raided” the county’s office after presenting a search warrant and that state officials wouldn’t let Mesa County’s chief deputy clerk observe the investigation being conducted by Griswold and Dominion Voting Systems,

“After several hours, they allowed my chief deputy to come in and they go ‘Oh, Look at this. Look! Look! See we found this, this, this!’” Peters said. ”I don’t know what they did, but I can tell you I don’t trust them.”

Peters’ office did not respond to an email message Wednesday requesting an interview.

Griswold, in describing the investigation, said: “To be very clear, Mesa County Clerk and Recorder allowed a security breach and by all evidence at this point, assisted it.”

Griswold said the majority of Colorado’s election clerks are Republicans which shows “how untrue that statement is.”

Griswold has been a national leader in the fight for voting rights and against misinformation, including leading a multi-state lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service and Postmaster General for distributing flyers with misleading information to Colorado voters.

In June, she issued orders further restricting third parties from accessing voting machines — a response to what she called “sham audits.” She pointed to an ongoing audit of 2020 election results in Arizona’s most populous county commissioned by Arizona Senate Republicans and conducted by a Florida-based cybersecurity firm known as Cyber Ninjas. The firm is led by a chief executive officer who tweeted support for conspiracy theories claiming Trump won Arizona.

Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said Griswold contacted his office Monday for an inquiry into potential criminal matters. Rubinstein said his investigator who handles elections was present at the clerk’s office with the Secretary of State’s team. Rubinstein did not comment on the specifics to avoid compromising the investigation.

In February of 2020, Griswold’s office announced a Mesa County elections investigation after nearly 600 ballots were forgotten in a drop-box outside Peters’ office front door for months following the 2019 general election, a year after Peters was elected.

That event prompted an effort by Democrats to recall Peters, but they didn’t get enough signatures to force a recall election.

Griswold’s investigation lead to heavier oversight of the Mesa election’s office by requiring the county to submit a “business process” for retrieval and recording of mail ballots to be approved by Griswold’s office.

Colorado’s voting system has been praised by officials, including former Trump-appointed Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen, as some of the safest in the nation. The state’s election procedures were developed under both Republican and Democrat-appointed Secretary of States.

“Across the nation we are seeing a coordinated effort to undermine democracy and suppress the right to vote,” Griswold said. “We will not allow Colorado or our elections system to be used as a tool to undermine confidence to set the road for voter suppression”

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Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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