Briefline

Colorado Democrats introduce bill to strengthen election security against ‘insider threats’

By: - March 15, 2022 5:00 am

John Botthoff, right, a poll watcher, observes election workers going through the signature verification process at the Jefferson County elections office on Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)

Colorado Democrats want to strengthen the state’s physical election equipment security, expand the election official certification process and increase penalties for tampering with voting systems — all in the name of combating insider threats.

“As misinformation and conspiracy theories, unfortunately, increasingly seep into our elections, we must take quick action to ensure our elections will always remain free, fair and secure,” Senate President Stephen Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, said during a Monday press conference.

He introduced the Colorado Election Security Act on Friday with Democratic state Rep. Susan Lontine of Denver. It is part of Secretary of State Jena Griswold’s legislative priorities this session.

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“Since the 2020 election, this nation has faced a new and evolving threat. The floodgates of misinformation have opened, laying the groundwork to suppress the vote, attack confidence in the electoral system and destabilize American elections,” Griswold said. “The state of Colorado, which is first in so many things … also became the first in the nation to face an election insider threat attack.”

Neither Fenberg nor Griswold called the legislation a direct response to a 2021 security breach in Mesa County allegedly facilitated by Clerk Tina Peters, but the bill addresses many of her alleged offenses and leaders referenced her actions in their comments.

Tina Peters released on bond from Mesa County jail

“It’s not like we’re making things that she did illegal retroactively. This is actually thinking proactively about ensuring we have protections in place and that we are able to catch bad actors in the future,” Fenberg said.

The bill would increase basic physical security by mandating continuous video surveillance of election equipment and requiring key card access to rooms where equipment is stored. It would prohibit making unauthorized copies of election system hard drives and designate it a felony offense to tamper with equipment, enable unauthorized access to equipment and intentionally post voting system passwords online.

That is essentially a rundown of the Peters legal saga. Peters is accused of participating in making copies of Mesa County’s election system hard drive before and after a secure software update. She allegedly allowed an unauthorized person to use another person’s key card to access the room during the update. The video surveillance system was turned off before the process at Peters’ direction, according to her recent indictment. Following the update, passwords for the system were posted on a conservative website.

Peters, who is also running to unseat Griswold, is now facing a grand jury indictment on 10 counts.

Pueblo County Clerk Gilbert “Bo” Ortiz, left, Secretary of State Jena Griswold, center, and Senate President Stephen Fenberg, right, speak about the Colorado Election Security Act on March, 14, 2022. (Screenshot from Colorado Senate Democrats Facebook)

The legislation would bar anyone from serving as an election official in Colorado who has been convicted of an election offense, ​​sedition, insurrection, treason, or conspiracy to overthrow the government. If Peters is convicted of the crimes she is charged with, she will not be able to oversee an election again.

The bill also seeks to protect voters from misinformation. It would prohibit an election official from “knowingly and recklessly” spreading misinformation related to election administration, such as the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

“I don’t think it’s too much to ask that if you’re running our elections, you can’t lie about our elections. If you’re running our elections, you need to approach it with integrity and honesty and you shouldn’t be spreading false information for the purposes of advancing misinformation,” Fenberg said.

Finally, the legislation would expand the existing courses for the election official certification program and require the training be completed within six months or before the official runs their first major election. It would include training on voter registration, mail ballots, in-person voting processes and election security

“What we saw in Mesa County was a low-information clerk, which made her susceptible to grifters and bad actors,” Colorado County Clerk Association Executive Director Matt Crane said.

“We feel it’s important to know your job before you’re tasked with doing your job,” he said.

CCCA President and Pueblo County Clerk and Recorder Gilbert “Bo” Ortiz said the association strongly supports the legislation, and he called it the most important bill since the 2013 bill that made sure every registered Colorado voter receives a mail-in ballot.

“It’s important to harden our election security posture against any insider threats who seek to break the law and undermine public confidence in our elections,” Ortiz said.

A $500,000 grant program is baked into the bill so smaller counties can afford to upgrade their security technology to meet the bill’s requirements. Lawmakers expect to pass the measure before the session ends in May.

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Sara Wilson
Sara Wilson

Sara Wilson covers state government, Colorado's congressional delegation, energy and other stories for Newsline. She formerly was a reporter for The Pueblo Chieftain, where she covered politics and government in southern Colorado. Wilson earned a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and as a student she reported on Congress and other federal beats in Washington, D.C.

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