Election workers at the Arapahoe County Government Administration building in Littleton, on Nov. 3, 2020. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)
On June 17, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter that her office had “just issued rules prohibiting sham election audits in the State of Colorado.”
“We will not risk the state’s election security nor perpetuate The Big Lie,” she added, referring to the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. “Fraudits have no place in Colorado.”
The emergency rules adopted by Griswold’s office require that anyone accessing components of a county’s voting system “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.”
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Griswold said the changes were issued in response to unprecedented third-party requests for access to voting equipment, and would help prevent situations like the one that has unfolded in Maricopa County, Arizona, where state senators hired the inexperienced Cyber Ninjas firm to examine ballots and voting equipment in a widely criticized probe of presidential election results.
Now, Griswold wants to make the changes permanent as part of an update to state election rules.
The Secretary of State’s rulemaking hearings are normally relatively quiet affairs, but the persistent falsehood that the 2020 presidential election was stolen — and associated misconceptions about Colorado elections — drove dozens to testify against the proposed rule changes for more than four hours on Wednesday.
“I publicly dare any public official to call me a conspiracy theorist when I speak to my concerns with our election and election system,” Colorado resident Shawn Smith testified at the online hearing, calling several of the proposed changes “bogus” and “unconstitutional.”
“They are the gold standard in fraud. That is all they are the gold standard in,” said another resident, Linda Bissett, rebuking comments from Republican county clerks who have defended Colorado’s election system as a “gold standard” for the country.
Officials have not identified instances of voter fraud that could have swayed the results of the 2020 presidential election, and multiple legal challenges to the 2020 election, brought by supporters of former President Donald Trump, have been dismissed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Joe Biden won Colorado by a significant margin in 2020, and the state hasn’t been a national focus point for Trump allies contesting election results. Still, some people in Colorado — including some Republican state lawmakers — have called for an investigation of the state’s election system.
Many people who testified Tuesday reiterated those calls, excoriating the proposed ban on third-party audits.
“All that does for us is make it look like there’s something being hidden,” Karen Seibold testified.
Push to increase election transparency
As executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, Matt Crane represents the 64 county officials who run elections throughout the state. Crane told Newsline in an interview that third-party election audits would have arguably been banned with or without Griswold’s emergency rules.
“By and large, the statute of Colorado was pretty clear already in terms of what people can do in terms of auditing the election on their own and what they can’t,” Crane said. “For instance, ballots, the actual paper ballots, are discoverable under (the Colorado Open Records Act), but the signatures are not.”
“So, you know, if somebody wants to pay a county money to get access to the ballots, they could do that in a very controlled manner,” Crane continued. “It’s going to be however the county dictates that. But … somebody couldn’t go back through and look at all the ballot envelopes from the election and compare the signature there to what’s on file.”
The County Clerks Association supports most of the proposed rule changes, Crane said, though it takes issue with some of the new requirements for signature verification. The proposed rules would, among other changes, require counties to keep track of individual election judges’ rates of accepting or rejecting ballot signatures.
Clerks support implementing a “more robust signature verification audit that’s consistent across the state,” Crane said, a process that they hope to hash out in meetings with state elections officials starting Aug. 12.
“We would much rather that any rules around signature verification audits wait until after our committee work is done, to where we can work on a policy that’s more robust and strengthens the integrity of our elections,” Crane said.
In an effort to further increase transparency, the County Clerks Association also advocates all making ballot images and cast vote records from the 2020 presidential election available for anyone to view online. Several counties, including El Paso and Pueblo, have already done this, Crane said, but cost remains an issue for other counties, as personally identifiable information must be redacted from the public ballot images.
“Redaction will be a very important element of this conversation as it is very staff intensive and expensive,” the County Clerks Association wrote in a June letter to the Bipartisan Election Advisory Committee. “Without automated options and/or process changes, many counties will not be able to provide these records at no cost.”
Threats, accusations still flying
Though Trump lost the White House more than six months ago, Crane said county clerks are still receiving threats from people who believe that Colorado’s voting system is fatally flawed.
During Tuesday’s hearing, the sense of grievance was palpable.
“No private entity gets to audit itself and then proclaim itself the gold standard,” said Shawn DeMarco, referring to the risk-limiting audit process used in Colorado. “Elections belong to we the people. Transparency is how we the people trust our government.”
Griswold has repeatedly defended Colorado’s risk-limiting audit process, which was first used under Griswold’s predecessor, Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams, and is widely lauded by election security experts.
“Colorado is considered the safest state in which to cast a ballot, in part because of our use of bipartisan risk limiting audits,” Griswold said in an emailed statement provided to Newsline. “A risk limiting audit is conducted by bipartisan teams of election judges after every state and federal election. Colorado’s voting system has been through more risk-limiting audits than any other voting system in the country.”
The proposed rules permanently banning third-party audits would not affect the risk-limiting audit process, Griswold added.
“Allowing open access to voting equipment can cost a state millions of dollars to replace it once it can no longer be verified as secure,” she said to explain the rationale for those proposed rules.
Fremont County Clerk Justin Grantham, a Republican, told Newsline that many of the people claiming widespread fraud or flaws with the election system don’t seem to understand how elections work.
For example, several people testified against a proposed change that would eliminate requirements dictating the proper chain of custody for voting machines, saying that showed a desire by the Secretary of State’s office to decrease transparency. But the rule change simply eliminated obsolete references to old equipment that’s no longer in use, Grantham said.
Some people also protested a scheduled software update that they said would eliminate evidence of fraud from the 2020 election. However, Grantham said county clerks had been instructed to back up all of that data before commencing the software update, which includes bug fixes and other upgrades.
Grantham said people with concerns about election integrity should contact their county clerks to learn more about the process. That includes Republican state Rep. Ron Hanks of Cañon City, who has publicly questioned the integrity of the 2020 election, and to whom Grantham wrote a scathing letter on July 28.
“I am truly surprised you never made the time to have a conversation with the chief election official of the county that you reside in and represent,” Grantham wrote. “The misinformation being spread has led to multiple threats on Clerks including myself. Serious threats have happened in your own district due to the misinformation. This has forced a remodel of the Chaffee County Clerk’s Office to protect her and her staff from threats of violence.”
As of Aug. 5, Grantham said he had not received a reply from Hanks.
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