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Colorado Clerks Targeted by Election-Fraud Conspiracy Groups

A growing number of county clerks and election officials across the state are being tested by groups that question the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, a situation that is “extremely problematic.”

(TNS) — For an hour and a half, El Paso County, Colo., Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman met with a small group of people that showed up at his office to talk about what they insisted were deep-rooted security and fraud problems within Colorado's election systems.

Problems that Broerman, a Republican, and other election officials have repeatedly said don't exist. Among the visitors was 2020 election denier Shawn Smith of an effort called the U.S. Election Integrity Plan — a group that claims election irregularities and fraud in the 2020 elections in Colorado. One of their requests to Broerman during the meeting in May: give access to the county voting equipment and allow a third party to conduct "a forensic audit."

Broerman declined, but he described to them in detail the redundant systems of election security measures to show why elections in his county are secure and reliable.

The clerk said Smith, of Colorado Springs, then responded, "Clerk Broerman, we will either do this with you or through you."

"I took that as a threat that if I didn't do that, that there would be repercussions for not doing what they wanted me to do," he said.

That wasn't the last Broerman heard from this group or others. He, like other local elections officials across the country, have been facing increased pressure from people trying to cast doubt on the integrity of U.S. elections using unfounded claims of election fraud, spreading the lie that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

At an "emergency town hall" meeting in mid-February of FEC (Faith, Education, Commerce) United, a right-wing political group with a militia wing, speakers called for completely dismantling the current election system and starting over. They applauded the embattled Republican Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters now running for secretary of state, who spoke at the meeting, and Smith accused Secretary of State Jena Griswold of being involved in election fraud, saying those who are "deserve to hang." They also called out clerks like Broerman — referring to him as a RINO.

Although Broerman resisted the demand for forensic audit, election security experts point to a growing number of elections officials, some of whom are tasked with overseeing local elections, who are joining those who deny the legitimacy of 2020 election results. They use rhetoric or take actions that cast doubt on the integrity of free and fair elections. The Denver Post spoke to national election experts, the secretary of state and county clerks, including Peters, about the 2020 election and claims of widespread fraud.

Beyond Peters, who has cast doubt on the 2020 election results and continued to spread allegations of election fraud, it's unclear the number of Colorado clerks who have been contacted about taking similar actions. David Levine, an elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Elections in Washington, D.C., called it "extremely problematic" and said it wouldn't be a surprise if other clerks are looking at what Peters is doing and saying about elections and use that as inspiration for their own candidacies.

"Under The Radar" Access to Voting Machines

An email filed in a federal lawsuit from the founder of FEC United described an effort to get third-party access into Dominion Voting Systems machines — a common target of election deniers — in the state.

"You also need to be aware of what we're doing in Colorado in gaining access to the Dominion Systems under the radar. We have several county clerks cooperating," wrote Joe Oltmann of FEC United in an email to Trump lawyer Sidney Powell.

The United States has always had to protect its voting system infrastructure against insider threats, but experts worry that conspiracy theories spreading since the 2020 election will be damaging to democracy.

"I do think that it is a risk that some of these people that come into office embracing the 'Big Lie' would be willing to manipulate election results in the future," said Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has researched risks of election subversion and stolen elections. "After all, if you believe that the last election was stolen from you, or you claim that you believe that, you'd be more likely to take steps to steal it back in a future election. I don't think we can know about any one particular person and what she's going to do if in power, but I think overall, that's a risk."

So, when Colorado's Democratic secretary of state launched separate investigations into three GOP county clerks' conduct over allegations of possible election security protocol breaches, officials and election security experts across the country paid attention.

"Unfortunately, it's not an understatement to say that U.S. democracy is under threat," Levine said.

Griswold, Colorado's secretary of state, said she believes that in Colorado and nationally, there's a broader strategy for an attempt to "undermine American democracy."

Griswold has sued Peters and later Elbert County Clerk Dallas Schroeder over allegations of making unauthorized copies of election servers. An investigation into the actions of a third county clerk, Merlin Klotz of Douglas County, cleared him.

A judge ultimately barred Peters from overseeing the 2021 election and the secretary is seeking a similar outcome in a lawsuit for 2022 after Peters refused to comply with security protocols and renounce her statements about voting equipment, including "we've got to get those machines so that they are transparent to the people and they are not able to do what they're designed to do." She's also facing multiple investigations, including by a grand jury.

Peters' Candidacy for Secretary of State

Peters who has aligned herself with Smith, CEO of MyPillow Mike Lindell and other 2020 election deniers, has been held up as a hero among supporters, including by Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

In an interview with The Denver Post at the end of February, Peters called the investigations into her actions "unethical" and "political" attacks by Griswold. When asked if she and other clerks were trying to get elected to positions that could change the outcome of elections, she said, "well, unfortunately, that is what it appears that has been done and that has no place in Colorado."

"It's not about me, and I can't speak for other clerks, but I happen to be the one who observed and reported on highly suspicious activities, just like we're talking about regarding voting machines in my county, and the voters have lost faith in the integrity of our elections because of that," she said. She claimed election records were deleted, which the secretary of state has rejected.

When asked when she first got involved with Smith, Oltmann and others, Peters said "there's a lot of people sounding the alarm for what's going on and I can't speak for them. All I can tell you is why I'm running for Colorado secretary of state."

Faith In Elections

Oltmann, who wrote the email to Trump's attorney about coordination with county clerks, declined an interview request, but said in an email: "... there was never a security breach, only an investigation into the corrupt and illegal behavior by an election machine company and the radical swath of evil doers in the government who have betrayed the people and irrevocably broken trust."

The U.S. Election Integrity Plan did not respond to requests for an interview with Smith for this story. In an online show with Bannon, Smith announced a new "election integrity" organization called "Cause of America," funded by Lindell. Smith has also been named in the investigation by the Colorado Secretary of State's Office as someone who allegedly helped direct the Elbert County clerk on the way to make copies of the hard drives of the election servers. And he has been identified in a video of rioters who were outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Clerks Klotz and Schroeder are also among a group of plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against her, calling for an Arizona-style forensic audit of the election systems and claiming that the voting equipment used in the election was not properly certified — a claim that other county clerks and state officials have said is untrue. Klotz declined to comment for the story and and his attorney John Case did not respond to requests for comment.

Bannon and other Trump allies have made it no secret that they encourage those who don't trust the 2020 election results to run for office or serve on local election boards. The Washington Post reported that at least 163 Republicans are running across the country for state positions that have embraced false claims about the 2020 election.

"It's a sad fact that today, we have many people seeking to become the chief election officers who wouldn't be able to tell a free and fair election from a rigged one," Levine said. He added that Colorado voters should consider who will conduct free and fair elections when voting, regardless of partisanship.

Colorado County Clerks Association Executive Director Matt Crane, a former Republican clerk in Arapahoe County, said several Colorado counties have been contacted by various groups and individuals, urging that they allow "forensic audits" of their voting equipment systems, which he believes may have originated with the U.S. Election Integrity Plan.

One letter sent in July to Colorado county clerks and the secretary of state was signed by Smith and Maurice Emmer, who has spoken at events spreading baseless claims of widespread election fraud. It repeated the claim that the state's voting equipment systems were improperly certified.

In another email shared by Crane, Emmer sent a form letter he encouraged individuals to send to their county clerks. It references a "forensic report" commissioned by Peters and urges clerks to participate in what appears to be an effort to undermine the reliability of voting equipment.

Emmer declined an interview request but in an email said he wasn't affiliated with any group and was sending letters to "notify clerks about the illegality of voting systems," adding that Griswold was allegedly "concealing this information from clerks. He declined to say how many clerks had received the letters or which clerks provided access to their voting equipment. It's unclear if clerks in other states are receiving similar letters.

When asked about these types of actions undermining free and fair elections and confidence in voting systems, Emmer wrote, "The opposite is true. Voting systems should be transparent."

Crane said when clerks rebuff these requests' and prove that their voting systems work, election deniers attempt to put pressure on them and their county commissioners, trying to get commissioners to pull funding of voting systems and maintenance agreements.

Lawrence Norden, senior director of Elections and Government at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, said he can't ascribe motive to elections officials who may have breached election security and given outsiders access to voting equipment, as Peters is accused of doing, but their actions and words are both concerning for faith in election systems and integrity of elections.

"So (if) somebody just doesn't trust the system and therefore is not going to follow the rules and give access of their systems to people who may have very bad intentions, or it's somebody who actually wants to not accept the election results if they're not for their the candidate that they want to win, those are both really big problems," Norden said.

Some of the elections officials may just be inexperienced and therefore distrusting of the systems, he said, while others are working as part of a nationally coordinated effort to get election deniers in these positions.

Brennan Center researchers released a study in June noting that election officials have been facing growing pressure to prioritize partisan interests over a fair and democratic process. They also have been tracking money spent on election official races in battleground states and the increased attention to secretary of state races across the country — an office that normally does not receive as much attention.

"The question of who ran and certified our elections has traditionally been of little interest to most," Ian Vandewalker and Norden wrote in their report. "That changed in 2020, when election officials became the focus of a disinformation campaign that was meant to undermine faith in American democracy and cast doubt on election results. Today, political leaders in both parties have argued that the future of our democracy depends on having the 'right' people in these offices, with many supporters of Donald Trump contending that the 2020 election should not have been certified, and others (including the Brennan Center) arguing that if officials had not been willing to stand up to political pressure, the election would have been sabotaged."

National polling has indicated that a majority of Republican voters do not think Joe Biden's presidency is legitimate, according to the Washington Post, and they believe Trump's unfounded claims that the election was stolen — claims that Colorado's secretary of state finds dangerous.

"We saw lies about the 2020 election nationally cause the insurrection leading to several members of the police force in DC that guard the Capitol, of course, losing their lives," Griswold said. "And it's the same lies that caused that violence we are seeing really pushing the efforts to suppress the vote, to destabilize election administration and then to also chip away at confidence in the electoral process. So that next time there is a Jan. 6 or an extreme candidate unwilling to accept the results of a race, it will be easier for them to take their positions."

Colorado Republican Party Chairwoman Kristi Brown did not respond directly to questions, but in a statement said Griswold was the one undermining trust in elections with her partisanship.

" Colorado Republicans wholeheartedly believe that your right to vote is enshrined in our country's founding documents and that casting your vote is the right of every citizen who wants to have a voice in our Republic," Brown said. "I've been clear that the 2020 election is over and that we have to be focused on 2022 and building a better future for all Coloradans."

Still, Colorado's Republican elections officials are finding themselves battling misinformation and disinformation each day as they work to explain Colorado's "gold standard" of elections and their security. Although Colorado is not a battleground state and its top officials are Democrats, a majority of its clerks are Republican.

GOP Clerks' Confidence

For Larimer County Clerk and Recorder Angela Myers, there is no doubt that her county not only runs elections well but that voters can rest assured that the results are accurate. She said those tasked with overseeing elections should have prior experience and ensure they're conducting elections in a way that shows no favoritism to any candidate or party.

"I'm confident in our processes ... and the systems that do it," the Republican clerk said. But like Broerman, she worries about public perception and tries to make herself available to answer questions and concerns.

Although Myers said she does not have the same concerns as the three county clerks or others who cast doubt on the elections in Colorado, if she did, she would not have gone about it in the way Peters and others are accused of doing.

"I would not have done anything in the dark of night," Myers said. "My first call would have been to my attorney, second call to the press, third call to the parties. Certainly, there would have been a call in there to the Secretary of State's Office. But it would not have been without being very, very public."

"When you do something in the dark of night with the cameras off, it is very difficult to have credibility ... whatever those results are," she added.

Broerman said he understands the "passion" people have in making sure the results are right, particularly as many are concerned about the direction the country is headed, but in a county as large as El Paso — about 720,000 — it becomes a daunting task trying to explain to people on an individual level why they can trust the process. Then there are also people who are spreading misinformation and disinformation, making that job even harder.

"Often, I will take three and a half, four hours to go through all the facets of elections because it's very detailed and very layered as to what we do and people come away blown away by all that goes into it, and I think by and large, people come away from that ... they can know confidently that we got the results right, that we did ascertain the correct will of voters," said Broerman said.

Still, it baffles him that in places like El Paso where Trump won 53.5 percent of the vote, people are still questioning the election results.

"I made a decision a long time ago that I will always speak to the truth and I will not be taken off that path and to speak differently than the truth," Broerman said, "even if it means that my political career is short."

(c)2022 The Denver Post. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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