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Colorado’s election workers are facing new scrutiny. They’re embracing new tools to build trust

 Chaffee County Clerk Lori Mitchell installed bulletproof glass in her office after receiving threats following the 2020 election.
Scott Franz
Capitol Coverage
Chaffee County Clerk Lori Mitchell installed bulletproof glass in her office after receiving threats following the 2020 election.

There are people running for higher office in Colorado this month that are making unfounded voter fraud allegations a central theme of their campaigns.

And that has some of the state’s top election workers worried.

Just as voters started getting their ballots for the upcoming June 28 primary, Attorney General Phil Weiser sent out a memo warning there will be new consequences for anyone who tries to intimidate voters or meddle with the election.

Matt Crane, the executive director of the bipartisan Colorado County Clerks Association, said he has never seen anything like it in his 22 years of helping run elections.

"But I think that it helps highlight the concerns that are out there about about elections," he said.

Crane is a Republican who was a county clerk in Arapahoe County and served as an election security consultant before taking the statewide job. He’s now a leading critic of members of his own party who continue to try and cast doubt on the state’s voting system.

"People's desire to undermine public confidence, not based on fact, but, you know, based on half-truths and lies could lead to violent situations,” he said. “And I think that's what everybody's concerned about."

Many of the state’s county clerks say they are dealing with threats, misinformation and harassment that started during the 2020 presidential election.

In Adams County, the county clerk is wearing a bulletproof vest to work.

But other clerks, including Tina Peters in Mesa County, are still promoting unfounded allegations of voter fraud. Peters stood on the west steps of the state Capitol in April and said Colorado’s election results have been tampered with.

"For people who say we need to look forward, we need to fix what happened in 2020," she told the crowd, which included people waving signs that the 2020 election was stolen.

Investigators in her home county have refuted those claims. And a grand jury indicted Peters over allegations she helped an outsider get a hold of voting machine data last year. She’s now running for secretary of state, which is Colorado’s top election job.

Crane said with election critics like Peters on the ballot, he’s more worried than ever about the election day.

"We are preparing for June 29, 2022, to be worse than November 4th, 2020, because if we have some of these candidates lose or if they're losing at the time, the claims of fraud and all of the garbage is just going to be amplified even more," he said.

Because of that possibility, county clerks say they are starting to do things they’ve never done before.

In Chaffee County, Democrat Lori Mitchell recently held an unprecedented meeting with the sheriff’s office this month to talk about potential threats. She is also releasing a new guidebook about election crimes.

"It makes our staff feel safe. It makes the voters feel safe," she said. "And they want to know that you're doing everything and you take it seriously."

Mitchell said she considered canceling her re-election bid this year because of the threats she has been facing since the last election. Instead, she says she’s doubling down on making her office more secure and transparent.

"We've implemented some keycard access. So we have a log and also an alarm system," she said.

Mitchell said she is also excited to get some backup from the state Capitol. Gov. Jared Polis signed a new law making it a crime to openly carry guns near polling places. He also approved measures this month to toughen criminal penalties for people who threaten election workers or meddle with voting equipment.

Secretary of State Jena Griswold says the new laws will help hold bad actors accountable.

"People are running to oversee elections across this nation who are embracing conspiracy theories," she said, while endorsing new internal election security rules this spring. "We believe this will continue to spread."

Despite these new penalties for people who try to interfere, Matt Crane of the County Clerks Association said voters should brace for some threats.

"There's no amount of evidence or data or fact that you can put in front of them if they've been brainwashed to think the sky is purple. And that's what we've seen," he said of election skeptics. "People have just been brainwashed on this to believe these people who have financial interests, political interests, whatever it may be, and continuing to perpetrate this lie about (compromised) voting systems."

Crane said clerks are also finding new ways to fight against misinformation.

"I think the stakes are so much higher now," he said. "So checking, checking, rechecking, working with county legal departments to make sure that they're abreast of everything that's happening, any crazy claims that are happening out in the communities or on social media."

Voters have until June 28 to return their ballots. They can track their progress online to make sure they are accepted and counted.

Copyright 2022 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Scott Franz is a government watchdog reporter and photographer from Steamboat Springs. He spent the last seven years covering politics and government for the Steamboat Pilot & Today, a daily newspaper in northwest Colorado. His reporting in Steamboat stopped a police station from being built in a city park, saved a historic barn from being destroyed and helped a small town pastor quickly find a kidney donor. His favorite workday in Steamboat was Tuesday, when he could spend many of his mornings skiing untracked powder and his evenings covering city council meetings. Scott received his journalism degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is an outdoorsman who spends at least 20 nights a year in a tent. He spoke his first word, 'outside', as a toddler in Edmonds, Washington. Scott visits the Great Sand Dunes, his favorite Colorado backpacking destination, twice a year. Scott's reporting is part of Capitol Coverage, a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.