Tina Peters is a symptom. Threats to Colorado democracy go beyond her.
Group that claims election fraud is determined and organized
Colorado election-fraud activist Sherronna Bishop speaks during Mike Lindell’s “Cyber Symposium” event on Aug. 10, 2021. (screenshot)
The clerk and recorder of Mesa County, Tina Peters, appears to have engaged in direct, potentially illegal, activities that threatened election integrity in her jurisdiction. The irony of the case is infinite — she is a far-right adherent of the big-lie movement that claims former President Donald Trump won the November election and purports to be safeguarding election integrity.
After images of passwords from the Mesa County election system were posted online by QAnon ringleader Ron Watkins, Secretary of State Jena Griswold launched an investigation into what she called a “serious breach” of election security. Griswold said the investigation has found that Peters was involved in surreptitiously copying information from election system hard drives, which was delivered to election conspiracists. Griswold assigned her own supervisor to oversee Mesa County elections, since Peters appears unfit for that responsibility. The local district attorney is pursuing possible related criminal charges, and the FBI is conducting an investigation.
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Peters’ response was to ignore Griswold and head out of state. She turned up in South Dakota, where she was a top-billed, if incoherent, attraction during last week’s election conspiracy event “Cyber Symposium,” a festival of lies hosted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. Now she is “holed up,” evidently on the run, in a “safe house” under Lindell’s protection, according to Vice.
Peters might seem an exceptional case of the damage that election truthers are doing to democracy. But she didn’t act alone, and Coloradans should treat her as a red alert.
What led to the Mesa County breach was a determined and organized effort to discredit election results in Colorado. Similar activity is taking place in other states, like Arizona, where Republicans tend to have more influence than they do in Colorado. But the spirit of the attacks, and the threat they pose, is the same.
One of the main vectors of election disinformation in Colorado is Sherronna Bishop. Bishop served as campaign manager for Rep. Lauren Boebert, herself a prolific peddler of election lies. Bishop, who styles herself as “America’s Mom,” is an energetic and versatile activist who can recite talking points on gun rights absolutism, COVID denial and a take-your-pick roster of far-right insanity. Her latest project is to erase confidence in Colorado elections.
Bishop accompanied Peters to the Lindell event and also spoke from the stage. “In Colorado, we are a red state,” she told the gathering, though by any conceivable objective measure the state is solidly blue. “We know we are. And there are amazing people who are out there, they are verifying this, they are going door-to-door, they’re doing the work to prove that our elections were stolen.” No credible evidence exists that suggests the November election in Colorado or the United States was compromised or fraudulent.
Also at the gathering with Bishop and Peters was Shawn Smith, a retired Air Force colonel. Voters might not be familiar with Smith, but state elections officials sure are. His professional stature and technical experience in the military lend a patina of plausibility to his disquisitions about how Colorado’s voting systems, especially Dominion machines, can’t be trusted.
Smith and Bishop work with the Colorado Chapter of the U.S. Election Integrity Plan, which has outposts in other states, such as Arizona and Georgia. After the November election, the group issued a statement calling on Colorado officials not to certify results. “As far as we are concerned, every race and ballot measure in every district in the state is suspect,” it said.
In April, the Republican Study Committee of Colorado, a conservative association of legislators, met to discuss election integrity. The first presentation was delivered by John Eastman, the University of Colorado Boulder visiting professor who is infamous for speaking at the Trump rally on Jan. 6 that preceded the insurrection (“We know there was fraud … We know that dead people voted,” Eastman said at the rally).
Also on the agenda was USEIP. “We’re focused on restoring the Republic,” said USEIP’s Ashe Epp during her presentation. She said USEIP is the only organization in Colorado wholly focused on election integrity and had swiftly grown since November to 283 activists. “We have ground game, with people ready to start on the voter verification, ready to start on a number of initiatives in 16 counties across the state, including the 12 largest.”
As part of that ground game, the group has dispatched volunteers to counties around the state to importune voters at their doors. The volunteers are “using public voter lists to identify precincts from which they believe ballots were fraudulently cast and asking residents to confirm their addresses, whether they participated in the 2020 election, and if so how they cast their vote,” according to the Colorado Times Recorder.
It’s unclear exactly which counties have seen this kind of activity — which voters in no way are obliged to entertain — but reports indicate they include at least El Paso, Larimer, Weld and Mesa. And, as we now know, it’s in Mesa that the election-fraud activists scored their biggest prize yet, a county clerk allegedly willing to subvert election security on behalf of a movement that purports to protect election security.
Coloradans can take comfort in at least one outcome of these efforts — so far they have been rebuffed by other Republican county clerks (there are a total of 38 in the state’s 64 counties). In Elbert County, for example, County Clerk Dallas Schroeder said that after November he started fielding questions about election integrity from citizens. One of the people who challenged him on the vote was Shawn Smith, with whom he spoke about three times in the spring, he said.
“I decided the best way to put any concerns to bed was to go ahead and do a recount,” Schroeder said.
The hand recount in Elbert County is believed to be the only one to have been conducted in the state. It took place in May and examined all 19,131 ballots in the county’s presidential election. In a race that saw Trump beat President Joe Biden by 50 percentage points in Elbert, the recount found only three discrepancies, all due to human error, not the county’s Dominion machines. “It showed that here in Elbert County we didn’t have any issues with our system,” Schroeder said.
Public servants like Schroeder are the bulwark between actual election integrity, as America for so long has enjoyed, and the enemies of democracy, who in Colorado and across the country would rather dismantle reliable voting systems than lose elections.
Never in the country’s history have authoritarians so brazenly and systematically attempted to subvert the people’s will. Institutional defenses remain largely intact. But USEIP’s disinformation campaign is as much about creating doubt about future elections as it is about overturning the last one. And the big-lie movement in Colorado has sympathizers in the Legislature and the highest ranks of the state GOP.
How long democracy’s defenses can hold remains to be seen.
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