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After Data Is Posted On Conspiracy Site, Colorado County's Voting Machines Are Banned

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, left, speaks during a press conference about to the Mesa County election breach investigation on August 12, in Denver.
RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group
Denver Post via Getty Images
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, left, speaks during a press conference about to the Mesa County election breach investigation on August 12, in Denver.

Colorado officials said Thursday that a local county clerk allowed an unauthorized person into a secure facility during an annual upgrade to the county's election equipment software, compromising the equipment.

The Mesa County clerk, Tina Peters, could be in legal trouble. She's currently at a conference led by a prominent election conspiracy theorist.

That security breach means Mesa County, in the far western part of the state, will not be able to use the equipment for its fall election. While the unauthorized access did not create an imminent, direct security risk to Colorado's elections, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said her office's investigation confirmed that the unauthorized person did release the passwords for the underlying voting machine software online.

"We know that that information was posted by an extreme conspiracy theorist last week," Griswold said, referring to the Gateway Pundit, a conservative news site that traffics in election conspiracy theories.

She has prohibited Mesa County from using the current Dominion Voting equipment for the next election. The county can replace it and install new equipment in the next few weeks or do a hand count this November.

Peters and her deputy did not respond to Colorado Public Radio's requests for comment.

Mesa County commissioners will meet in executive session Friday to get legal advice and discuss the future of the county's Dominion contract. County spokeswoman Stephanie Reecy said commissioners will not comment about the current investigations until they are concluded.

"There are still many unanswered questions, and the Board is working closely with legal counsel to determine the next steps," Reecy said in an email Thursday evening. "The Board's focus continues to remain on ensuring the integrity of the voting process in Mesa County."

How the breach happened

At a press conference Thursday, Griswold said her investigators found that an unauthorized person's name was entered into the log of people who were present for a secure software update conducted by Dominion employees at the county election division in late May.

Griswold said the person's presence violated the rules for several reasons. "He is not an employee — you have to be an employee to attend these. You also have to be background checked and the County Clerk's office specifically misled my office saying that he did comply with the rules."

Videos and photos from that update were later shared online by Ron Watkins, an influential member of the QAnon conspiracy movement.

Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein has assigned an investigator to look into the security breach, which could potentially lead to criminal charges.

"I can confirm that we have not entered into this investigation with any person or criminal act in mind and will reserve judgment on that until the investigation is complete," said Rubinstein in an email to Colorado Public Radio. "I also am unable to speculate on the length of time the investigation will take as we are too early in the investigation to have a good sense of the scope of it."

A spokesperson for Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems, which provides election equipment to Colorado and 27 other states, said the company continues to work in full cooperation with the state and Mesa County authorities.

Griswold also said that one week before the breach, Peters ordered her staff to turn off the video surveillance system that monitors the voting machines and that it was only recently turned back on. She said her office is still waiting for more information and documentation and hasn't been in contact with Peters since launching the investigation Monday.

Peters is currently out of state for a "cyber symposium" hosted by Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow. Lindell has become a champion of conspiracy theories that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. The proof of fraud Lindell said he would reveal at the symposium did not materialize.

Dominion Voting Systems is suing Lindell for defamation, saying he spread false information that its voting machines rigged the November presidential election. The company is seeking damages from him in excess of $1.3 billion. It has also sued a variety of conservative news outlets and media personalities for making what it says are false claims about the election and Dominion's work.

'I'm a conservative and she's not'

Speaking at Lindell's conference, Peters accused Griswold of launching a politically motivated investigation.

"She has come into my office several times already in the last two years since I've been the elected official, because I am a Republican, I'm a conservative and she's not. And she weaponizes her position to attack people that disagree with her," said Peters.

She called Mesa County "the last bastion of freedom" in Colorado and said she's committed to helping voters there get more information about the November 2020 election.

"Something didn't seem right in our county from years ago to the 2020 election. And they wanted answers. And I said, you know what? If there's a 'there' there, we'll find it. And I've made that pledge to the citizens of Mesa County and all over Colorado."

Peters criticized Griswold for making the inquiry so public and said she sent her own staff home earlier this week.

"They have been harassed. They've been violently threatened. The Secretary of State of Colorado has opened up Mesa county to incredible reproach."

Matt Crane, head of the Colorado County Clerks Association, had harsh words for what occurred in Mesa County but emphasized that the breach only affected local election machines.

"It was a solo, intentional and selfish act that jeopardized the conduct of and the elections and Mesa County and affects the competence of voters throughout the state. We've heard people say that this is heroic. To be clear. There is nothing heroic or honorable about what happened in Mesa County," said Crane, a Republican and former Arapahoe County clerk.

Neither Griswold nor Crane said whether they believed Peters should step down.

"I think it's premature to talk resignation or anything else," said Crane. "Let's see what happens with this continued investigation, and then ultimately it's up to the people in this county to decide."

Peters was elected clerk in 2018. The former businesswoman and political newcomer won the job running against a longtime employee of the clerk's office. She faced widespread blowback last year when her office discovered 574 ballots that were never collected from a drop box during the fall 2019 election.

Peters survived an effort to recall her from office over the ballots and other issues, including allegations that she failed to maintain adequate staffing in the election division.

Copyright 2021 CPR News

Bente Birkeland
Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for Rocky Mountain Community Radio stations, including KVNF, since 2006. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May, covering important bills, discussions, and the positions of our state legislators.