Jena Griswold, the then-Colorado secretary of state-elect, during the Democratic watch party in downtown Denver on Nov. 6, 2018. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Secretary of State Jena Griswold announced last week temporary new rules that narrow who can access and audit voting equipment in Colorado. The emergency rules came in response to unprecedented third-party requests for access to county voting equipment used in the 2020 elections, Griswold said. In some cases, Griswold told CNN this week, “Our local county election officials were … getting pressured with threats.”
The secretary of state’s office declined to share details about the threats. According to a Newsline survey of the state’s 64 county clerks, the overwhelming majority among the roughly half who responded did not receive threats or requests for third-party audits, but some county clerks have reported a range of menacing encounters.
“I’m on pins and needles. I mean, it’s awful,” Lori Mitchell, the Chaffee County clerk, said. Threats to her office via social media began after the 2020 election, she said, but they’ve since intensified. “Just as an example, what happened to me two days ago: I’m driving a block away from my office and I see out of the corner of my eye, somebody take their right hand, lay it over their left arm, and it looks like they’re shooting a gun at me. It was a squirt gun.”
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In response to mounting threats “calling our integrity into question,” Mitchell had bulletproof infrastructure installed in her Salida offices. “My staff deserves to feel safe at work,” she says. “I wouldn’t have opened my office to the public (after COVID and the elections) unless I had the bulletproof glass and wall installed.”
Mitchell’s office reports all threats to the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and Colorado’s secretary of state office. “I was talking to another clerk today and I was like, ‘We need a support group to help walk each other through this stuff.’ It’s just horrible,” she said. “All we’re doing is servicing our citizens. We’re administrating our offices. We renew your license plates. We do your marriage license. We record your public documents. We don’t need these threats.”
In 2017, Colorado became the first in the nation to administer its own risk-limiting audits after every statewide election. As recommended by election security experts, risk-limiting audits use bipartisan audit boards to examine ballots selected by auditing software and result in statistical levels of confidence that election outcomes are correct, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The new rules prohibit third-party entities from accessing Colorado voting equipment and are intended to prevent audits from being politicized, as is transpiring in other states like Arizona, where the Republican-controlled state Senate commissioned an audit of Maricopa County’s election. According to the Colorado secretary of state’s office, at least two counties, El Paso and Weld, have been contacted by at least one organization, American Foundation for Civil Liberties and Freedom, with an offer to examine voting equipment. But, according to the emergency rules, to access any component of a county’s voting system a person must have passed a comprehensive criminal background check and be either an employee of the county clerk, an employee of the voting system provider, an employee of the secretary of state’s Office, or an appointed election judge.
According to Garfield County Clerk Jean Alberico, who participated in the Colorado County Clerks Association legislative committee, a number of county clerks have also received specific requests from members of their county’s Republican Party to not participate in the secretary of state’s latest voting systems upgrade process — a routine “trusted build” that elections staff orchestrate to ensure voting equipment meets the latest federal- and state-certified versions of elections software. “There seems to be misinformation being spread about this process,” Alberico says.
While the Arapahoe County clerk’s offices have not received threats, they have received “a few dozen emails and calls since November 2020 inquiring about Dominion Voting Systems (used by 62 of 64 Colorado counties), the third-party activity in Arizona, and other allegations concerning election integrity,” Arapahoe County Clerk Joan Lopez said in an email. “In a county where well over 350,000 voters cast ballots in the 2020 General Election, we’d consider that number pretty small, and a testament to how many voters have faith in the integrity of the process in Arapahoe County and Colorado.”
In Fremont County, Clerk Justin Grantham reports his office has messages threatening legal action if his county proceeds with the trusted build. “The only threats that have come to me (have been) by private messages,” he said. “I have since contacted that person and explained processes, Colorado rules and laws, and invited them to volunteer as an election judge during the next election to witness the process first hand and the person has not contacted me since,” he said in an email.
The Jefferson County clerk’s office has also received threats since the 2020 elections. “We have preferred and continue to prefer not to give oxygen to those threats by repeating them or their nature,” Clerk George Stern said in an email.
In Douglas County, Clerk Merlin Klotz is among the majority of county clerks who have not received requests for audits or threats. Griswold’s emergency ruling is “interesting,” he says. “We’ve got the most secure process in the country, so I’m happy for anybody to come in and audit our process and our elections. My reaction is: What is she trying to hide?”
Griswold told CNN that the emergency ruling is necessary “to protect our democracy.” Without grounds for investigation, Griswold said “sham audits” are being used to undermine election confidence: “Through the undermining of confidence in elections, some of the partisan GOP members are really setting the stage for further voter suppression.”
While Griswold’s new rules have an immediate impact on the auditing process, Mitchell of Chaffee County isn’t confident they’ll impact the abusive behavior she’s documenting in her community. “I don’t know what will help and that’s part of the problem,” she said. “We’re going to lead with the truth and I’m still trying to get our message out there that this is how we do things and these crazy conspiracy theories are leading to threats on our lives.”
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