MCKENZIE LANGE/The Daily Sentinel

Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, center, reads the results from the first round of ballots for the 2020 presidential primary elections at the Mesa County election office in March of 2020.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems like years ago when Mesa County election workers discovered 575 uncounted ballots from the 2019 general election in a drop box just outside the clerk’s office earlier this year, but it wasn’t.

Aside from the pandemic and everything else that occurred in 2020, that’s one of the biggest news events that happened during this tumultuous year.

That happened all the way back in February, when election workers were picking up ballots during the presidential primaries.

While the county’s elections have run relatively smoothly other than reports during the June primaries that a handful of ballots were “flying out” of the same drop box, no new problems have cropped up since those ballots were found.

The incident capped the height of widespread criticism for County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters, even leading to a failed attempt to oust her from office.

Since Peters took office in 2018, she’s been criticized for having an unusually high turnover rate among her 32-person staff, including losing several top election chiefs within a few months. That, however, was before Peters hired election managers Stephanie Wenholz and Brandi Bantz, who helped continue the county’s tradition of being the first in the state to report results.

But while those two were helping stabilize the office, attacks on Peters continued, leading to an attempt to recall her from office.

That effort was launched by a couple of former clerk employees, people who didn’t work in the office under Peters (though some who did helped in that effort).

The recall failed, in part, because of the high bar that the law places on such attempts. Petition organizers had 60 days to collect at least 12,192 signatures, all during the height of this year’s pandemic. Unlike efforts to place measures on the ballot, recalls require at least 25% of the total votes cast in the last election of that official, and give them a much tighter deadline to do so.

While those recall organizers never submitted their petitions, they claimed to have collected 10,892, 1,300 short of their minimum goal. There’s no way to independently verify that total, but even if the effort had reached that minimum, it still likely wouldn’t have been enough since, traditionally, a good portion of signatures are tossed for various reasons, such as being unverifiable.

During those 60 days, Peters raised numerous eyebrows in her effort to battle the recall attempt, including objecting to and filing complaints against the person hired by the Mesa County Board of Commissioners to monitor and rule on the effort. Peters even criticized the commissioners themselves for appointing that person, Eagle County Treasurer Teak Simonton. Peters said that Simonton was a Democrat and, therefore, biased against her (Simonton was a Republican when she was first elected as Eagle County’s clerk before she later became treasurer).

Peters asked in a public commissioners’ meeting to instead select former Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican, even though Williams took himself out of the running at the time because of a potential conflict of interest over Bantz, who worked for him when he was the El Paso County clerk.

The commissioners declined to make that change.

Peters later asked the commissioners to hire, and pay for, an attorney to represent her in the recall effort. They declined that request, too.

When the 575 ballots were discovered in the drop box located just a few feet away from the front door of the Central Services Building where the clerk’s office is located, Peters initially accepted responsibility, but then later went on to blame others for the error, including a former elections chief and some election volunteers in the office.

Peters raised the ire of many when she declined to petition a judge to have those votes counted on grounds they wouldn’t have changed the outcome of any of the November 2019 races. Peters is the only person with the authority to make such a request to the courts.

Even Mesa County Republican Party Chairman Kevin McCarney got into the fray, defending her and that decision, even though McCarney had been highly critical of Arapahoe County Clerk Joan Lopez, a Democrat, for making numerous errors during that same election, calling it “stunning incompetence or outright election fixing.”

Later during the June primary when some voters reported seeing ballots coming out of the same drop box, which by then had been converted into a drive-up box, Peters alleged that the whole thing was staged, but offered no evidence to support that claim.

Working separately as an elections observer by current Secretary of State Jena Griswold to ensure that the June primary went off without a hitch as a direct result of those 575 ballots, Simonton filed a report praising Wenholz and Bantz for their work, but was highly critical of Peters.

“Ms. Peters repeatedly asserted that any election oversight was unneeded, unwanted and a burden on her already stressed staff,” Simonton wrote in a report to Griswold in August. “Despite my best efforts to convince her of my intention to help, she was distrusting, frequently rude and antagonistic. As such, her interactions with me where at time terse and uncomfortable.”