As violent political rhetoric escalates, Colorado election workers keep democracy going

A combustible political atmosphere is expected to grow more volatile in 2024

By: - September 15, 2023 4:00 am

Chaffee County Clerk Lori Mitchell unpacks ballot envelopes for November’s election at the elections office in Salida on Sept. 13, 2023. Mitchell has been the target of an elevated level of harassment from local election skeptics and deniers. (Mike Sweeney for Colorado Newsline)

This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.

In June, the notorious conspiracy theorist and election denier David Clements appeared during a gathering in Chaffee County. The event was organized by the Chaffee County Patriots, which is open to members “willing to educate, equip and mobilize the community” on issues including “constitutional freedoms.”

Clements’ presentation to the roughly 50 attendees amounted to “a fanatical religious sermon” in which he set out “to perpetuate ‘The Big Lie’ but also to incite the audience to action,” according to the Ark Valley Voice

“At the end of this, I want you seething mad!” Clements exhorted.

The gathering and events like it around the country, the Voice said, “suggests an ominous new era in local politics and portends a tumultuous and violent 2024 presidential election year.”

This conclusion seemed to be corroborated by events that followed the gathering. In the next several weeks, local election activists, including those affiliated with the group Honesty in Chaffee County Under Protest, or HICCUP, undertook a campaign of harassment against Chaffee County Clerk Lori Mitchell. The Voice called it “a mission devoted to lobbying or wearing down an election process and planting distrust in our election staff and processes.”

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Mitchell also sees a correlation between the Clements meeting and an increase in disruptive local activity around election administration, such as HICCUP members making disparaging remarks about her before county commissioners.

“I know of people that were at that meeting, and they were seriously alarmed at the talk and how it’s painted as almost a religious thing,” Mitchell said. “It’s ‘us versus them’ and ‘good versus evil.’ And I feel that that drives people to do things that they don’t normally do.”

Mitchell is not alone in her concerns about the potential outcome of incendiary political rhetoric. In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, experts warned that inciting language from former President Donald Trump and his supporters made political violence probable. The Jan. 6 insurrection proved the prediction correct.

Now, more than a year before the next presidential election, threatening political speech is again a toxic component of the democratic process, in which election officials are at risk and violence increasingly occurs.

Violent rhetoric emanates most notably from Trump himself, including in his 2016 campaign, his presidency and his “stop the steal” attempt to remain in power after he lost the 2020 election. Most recently he has used inflammatory language in response to being investigated and indicted.

But his MAGA allies and supporters are responsible for some of the most extreme rhetoric. Former University of Colorado Boulder visiting scholar John Eastman, now indicted for his alleged role in trying to overturn the 2020 election, cited the Declaration of Independence in an interview published just last month in suggesting that it might be time for people to “fight” in response to the “stolen election” and “abolish the existing government.” Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona tweeted “We have now reached a war phase” in response to the federal grand jury indictment against Trump in June.

Violent acts — not just rhetoric — are on the rise. Reuters reported last month that there is “growing evidence that America is grappling with the biggest and most sustained increase in political violence since the 1970s,” and whereas previous political violence targeted property, now it targets people. Most of the violence comes from the right.

Several influential MAGA activists in Colorado regularly turn to inflammatory language. Shawn Smith, who participated in the insurrection and leads an “election integrity” organization launched by the conspiracist MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, repeatedly suggests on social media that Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and other officials “deserve due process” — apparent code for “execution.”

In July, speaking before a crowd in Monte Vista, podcaster and election denier Joe Oltmann, who has called for mass executions of political opponents, urged listeners “to recognize what sacrifices are going to be necessary in order to save our nation. Evil never crawled back into a hole without force being applied to it.”

Such rhetoric creates a combustible political atmosphere that’s expected to grow more volatile in 2024.

Security improvements

Matt Crane, a Republican who is executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, said threats against Colorado election officials have generally subsided since the 2022 election. But he doesn’t expect that to last as the presidential primary approaches.

“You hear more and more people and see when more and more people talking about civil war,” he said. “I definitely think there are forces that are trying to push it … It’s a tinderbox right now, and with all the lies that people are spewing — I mean, provably false, like the sky-is-purple kind of garbage — it’s like they’re trying to push people in that direction.”

A watchdog group recently filed a lawsuit in Colorado to block Trump from the presidential ballot. If the suit succeeds, the threat of violence would be a “huge concern,” Crane said.

“At that point, would I be surprised to see something happen? No, unfortunately. So it’s just something we have to keep an eye on,” he said.

A glass partition seen at the Chaffee County clerk’s office, installed during the pandemic to mitigate the spread of the COVID virus, has been replaced with bulletproof glass to protect staff. (Mike Sweeney for Colorado Newsline)

A top focus of election officials around the country is improving physical security of election offices, Crane said.

Officials in Arapahoe County just south of Denver, for example, recently installed security upgrades that include key card-controlled access to all areas of the elections office, replacing glass doors and windows with steel hardware, and adding bollards outside at the office entrance.

“We still receive threatening messages, and we are always working to make our facilities as safe as possible for our voters and employees,” Arapahoe Clerk Clerk Joan Lopez said in an email. “However, as events in Colorado have shown over the past couple of years, we also need to be diligent about creating accountability to preserve transparency and prevent any potential inside threats as well.”

Security improvements are emblematic of election workers’ determination, in the face of harassment, disinformation and threats, to remain honest stewards of the election process and ensure the gears of democracy keep turning.

If you have a question, don't go to the pillow salesman who's selling you a grift. Go to the person that knows, which is your clerk and recorder. We love questions.

– Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association

Last year, the Colorado County Clerks Association lobbied for a successful election security bill meant to protect against “insider threats,” such as Tina Peters, the former MAGA clerk of Mesa County who is facing felony charges for her role in tampering with own election equipment. Among the bill’s many provisions was a requirement for clerks and certain other local election workers to complete a certification program to ensure they properly understand their responsibilities. It also created a grant program to support security upgrades, such as bulletproof glass and video monitoring.

“We’re the ones who pushed the Legislature to get us to grant funding so that we can be able to pay for this stuff,” the association’s Crane said. “In terms of trying to inoculate our own folks, we have about a third of our clerks (who) are new. And to make sure that none of our folks fall into the same trap that Tina did, we pushed for getting certified before you run your first election so that you can know your job, you can understand the laws around our elections, the systems, the whole nine yards.”

Crane said the association is planning to promote greater awareness of the election process next year, and he invites voters to engage with election officials and expand their understanding of what election workers do.

“It’s going to be more about voters taking an active role in their own election security,” Crane said.

This could mean taking a tour of local election facilities. It could mean visiting Go Vote Colorado to verify your address is up to date and check important dates. Or signing up on BallotTrax to track your mail-in ballot.

“Most importantly, if you have a question, don’t go to the pillow salesman who’s selling you a grift. Go to the person that knows, which is your clerk and recorder. We love questions. We love to talk about what we do. We’re happy to talk about what we do.”

Chaffee County Clerk Lori Mitchell poses in Salida on Sept. 13, 2023. (Mike Sweeney for Colorado Newsline)

‘I am in fear’

On two occasions last year, Chaffee County election workers became alarmed enough by the behavior of a local election watcher that they contacted law enforcement and produced internal incident reports. In June at the local elections office the watcher became so loudly disruptive that election staff had to stop their work.

“It really did frighten the judges,” Mitchell said. “She did have a concealed carry on her, too, and we all knew it.”

In November, the watcher appeared with her brother at the Chaffee County Fairgrounds Election Office and appeared to be “casing the facility” and “checking out” the vehicles of election judges and watchers, according to an internal report.

“ln my opinion, she is doing real damage to our community and to our political party,” wrote the report’s author. “At first, we tried to ignore it hoping it would go away, but it has not, and now I feel that she is spiraling out of control, and I am in fear that she or her brother might do something. She knows where I live.”

Few election officials in Colorado have endured more abuse than Mitchell. Late last month, she responded to the harassment in an op-ed published in The Mountain Mail.

“It is difficult not to take recent accusations against me personally. I admit, some days it gets me down. My employees don’t deserve the harassment, nor do my family and friends. But mostly I worry that the crazy talk will inspire someone who doesn’t understand the process to harm someone or worse. That’s not who we are,” Mitchell wrote. “But most importantly, I want the citizens of Chaffee County to know that they can have confidence that when they cast their ballots, they are counted fairly and accurately by my office. And let the best candidate or issue win.”

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