Embattled Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters continuously repeats falsehoods about how Colorado elections are conducted, local and state officials say.

From questioning why passwords are kept secret to barcodes that are being phased out that are used to tabulate only a fraction of all ballots while simultaneously criticizing using machines to count them, Peters is relying on voter-fraud conspiracy theories and ignoring how elections are actually conducted, the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office and others say.

“Colorado is considered the nation’s leader in election security,” Secretary of State Jena Griswold said. “Clerk Peters is incorrect, and compromised the entire Mesa County election system to try to prove conspiracy theories.”

As a result, local and state election officials are concerned that Peters’ false statements about how elections actually are conducted are leaving some voters to question them.

They say that may partly be because Peters has yet to get the state required certification to operate elections because she hasn’t completed that training, something clerks are required to do within two years of taking office, according to Secretary of State records.

Peters has been overseeing the county elections for nearly three years.

To help counter Peters’ disinformation, those same officials addressed, point for point, several of her false claims, which some say border on the absurd.

While Peters is correct when she says there is no law or election rule that requires security cameras that monitor election equipment to be operating continuously, that has been the case in Mesa County for some time. At minimum, they must be on 60 days before an election and 30 days afterwards.

But it is the timing of when those cameras were turned off for the first time in about 10 years that has raised eyebrows.

At a recent board meeting responding to the clerk and some of her supporters, Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland said Peters never before turned off cameras after any of the eight previous elections she’s overseen.

In court filings on a lawsuit that temporarily removed Peters as the county’s designated election official, correspondence between Peters’ office and the county’s Information Technology Office revealed that Deputy Clerk Belinda Knisley asked that they be turned off in mid-May. They weren’t turned back on until August, three months before the fall election.

Rowland said that Peters also is right when she says that some counties don’t have their cameras on 365 days a year, but that’s because those counties’ elections equipment are unable to be kept permanently in their own secure room. Instead, they must be stored elsewhere between elections, where they are sealed and locked away.

That’s not the case in Mesa County, where the machines are constantly kept in the same room in the county’s Central Services Building on Spruce Street, she said.

“My question, which has never been answered by clerk Peters and I hope that it will be, is why, when the cameras have been left on for nearly a decade since moving into that new space, including under Tina’s entire term, why did she turn them off in May days before she came in late on a Sunday night and did this whatever type of undercover work she did?” Rowland said. “I said it before and I’ll say it again, if it was a Democrat clerk who did this, or a Jena Griswold who had done this, everyone who (defends Peters) would be screaming for their resignation and for criminal charges to be filed.”

QR CODES

Peters has repeatedly questioned a decision by Griswold in 2019 to phase out the use of QR codes that are used to tabulate certain ballots that are cast during in-person voting, saying they are needed to tabulate those ballots.

She says that while also insisting that all ballots should be hand counted, something that can’t be done with those codes, which are barcodes that can be read by computers but are undecipherable by humans.

At the time, Griswold said that while there is no evidence any of the state’s voting machines have been targeted or attacked, there’s no guarantee that couldn’t happen.

Phasing out their use just seemed prudent, she said when she announced that Colorado would be the first state in the nation to take that precaution.

Thing is, because about 95% of all ballots used in any Colorado election are paper ballots that voters receive by mail, they don’t have QR codes. As it is, only a small fraction of ballots that voters cast through certain electronic voting machines, the ones required for voters with disabilities, have QR codes. That’s about 2.5% of all ballots.

“It’s a very small percentage for those who use a ballot-marking device,” said former Secretary of State Wayne Williams, who, along with Mesa County Treasurer Sheila Reiner have temporarily replaced Peters and Knisley in overseeing this fall’s election while state and federal law enforcement agencies complete their separate investigations into possible criminal charges on election security breaches.

BALLOT TABULATORS

Ever since Peters appeared at a voter-fraud conspiracy theory event in August hosted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a fervent believer that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, the clerk has said the machines used to count paper ballots are nothing more than scanners similar to those many computer users have on their desktops.

She also repeatedly has questioned why such scanners need to have so much computer software to operate them.

That’s because those so-called scanners do more than just make a digital copy of a ballot.

They also tabulate the votes on those ballots, reading the bubbles that voters fill in to indicate their choices, Williams said.

“There are two things the tabulation machine does,” he said. “One is it scans. But in order to interpret the scans, the tabulation system has to have software that analyzes what is the pixelation coverage of this bubble.

“All of that is part of why you will have additional software on there. Just trying to scan the image doesn’t do us any good. We’ve got to count it, too.”

PASSWORDS

Peters also has repeatedly questioned why the Secretary of State’s Office has special passwords known only to certain state employees that are used to access a county’s election computers, saying she didn’t know until recently they existed.

They have been in use for years, including during Peters’ term. The state passwords, which are unique to each county, are used in conjunction with other passwords every clerk’s office also maintains.

The reason for the two sets of passwords is that it creates a dual security system that doesn’t allow any single person to access election system software, Williams said.

“Passwords are secret because otherwise they’re not really much of a password,” he said with a laugh. “So if you see somebody’s who’s got a Post-it Note of their password by their keyboard, that tells me that’s not a very secure password.”

Those state passwords are what first alerted state officials to Peters’ potentially criminal actions. Pictures of them were clandestinely taken while state election workers were in the county, and later appeared on a conspiracy theory social media network.

AIR GAPPED

Peters, along with a slew of her backers, also has repeatedly claimed that election machines are accessible remotely.

That, too, isn’t true, Williams and the Secretary of State’s Office says.

Williams said at one time some election computers did have that ability, but any wireless connectivity was always disabled. And even if they were, no one could get in without the two sets of passwords.

The newest machines, the ones the Mesa County had to get because the old ones were compromised by Peters and some on her staff, don’t even have the hardware necessary allow for remote access, he said.

That’s why the third level of security beyond the dual passwords is the need to have direct, physical contact with a county’s election machines. To do so would require someone to have a special key-card access to where equipment is stored, something Peters gave a non-employee whom she allowed in.

Commissioner Scott McInnis said the security measures are primarily aimed at preventing someone from the outside tampering with an election. No one ever expected the real threat would be from inside an elections office, he said.

“The only proof that we’ve gotten hacked was done twice by the clerk herself,” McInnis said at a recent board meeting. “Our machines were hacked by the people we would least expect.”

ELECTION FILES

Before the now legendary “trusted build” update of the county’s then election equipment on May 25, all county clerks were told to do a routine backup and copy all of their election files onto a separate storage device. The law requires them to maintain such files for at least 25 months in case an election is questioned and results need to be verified again.

The clerks were even provided with an eight-step manual complete with diagrams and pictures on how to do it.

Peters went a step further when she allowed an unauthorized person into secure areas of her election division to take a so-called forensic image of everything on an election machine’s hard drive. She has repeatedly claimed that trusted build session erased all election files, preventing the county from doing an audit of a past election.

Reiner, however, said that others in the election division did exactly what they were supposed to do in backing up those files, so audits are possible, she said.

Citing a report that Peters said she commissioned examining those images, which were taken before and after the trusted build, she claims that nearly 29,000 files were deleted. The only files that were deleted, however, were computer files that have nothing to do with elections, the Secretary of State’s Office says.

Instead, they were simple computer log files that aren’t used in verifying an election’s results, the office said.

AUDITS

Peters, along with a slew of other voter-fraud conspiracy theorists, also falsely claim that Secretary Griswold has ended all audits of election results, saying her office also shut down or limited public testimony when rules on certain audits were changed over the summer.

Neither is true, Griswold told The Daily Sentinel.

That rule change, which received hundreds of comments from the public at hours-long public hearings, applied only to something that hasn’t been happening in Colorado, but did in Arizona’s Maricopa County, which was an audit of election results by a company that had no experience doing election audits.

The rule simply bars counties from conducting their own third-party audits. They still are required to audit all election results themselves, as has always been the case, Griswold said.

“One of the reasons, and there were various reasons why I issued the prohibition on fake third-party audits, was because a Republican county clerk was getting death threats for refusing to do that,” Griswold said. “Some of the Republican clerks have been really getting pressured through this whole thing to do fake audits, to spread misinformation. To prevent the Arizona fake third-party audits was done on an emergency basis, which I have the authority to do.”

As has occurred in previous elections, ballots from the fall election will undergo a “forensic” risk-limiting audit, one that could take weeks before the results are officially certified, Williams said.

Those audits are designed to double check that ballot tabulation machines accurately scanned each ballot, and properly tabulated all votes, he said.

DROP BOXES

In February 2020, when election workers found 574 uncounted ballots from the 2019 coordinated election that had not been retrieved from a drop box located a few feet from the front door of Peters’ office, the clerk first blamed her then elections director, Jessica Empson, for the error, and then a bunch of “elderly” election judges.

On her Facebook page, she continues to blame Empson, who quit the job just weeks after the 2019 election, saying she should have picked up those ballots.

“Why didn’t you empty the ballot box the night of Coordinated Election?” Peters wrote. “In the video, you are standing there while a judge locked it at 7 p.m., and you never had anyone go back and empty the box which was solely YOUR responsibility.”

According to the state’s election code, only a bipartisan team of election judges, a Democrat and a Republican, are authorized to pick up ballots, which they place in locked bags and then bring to the ballot tabulation room.

At the time, Peters had scrapped a procedure practiced by her predecessor — Reiner — to check off when ballots are picked up at various times of the day throughout the voting process.

SECURE ELECTIONS

Williams, Reiner and county commissioners say they are doing everything they can to ensure that all this results in a safe and secure — and accurate — election.

To help voters feel more confident in those results, the county plans to do more than just tabulate ballots in new state-of-the-art voting machines and conduct the necessary audit.

In addition, the county is spending extra money to have those ballots run through another company’s voting machines. Like 61 other counties in the state, Mesa County uses Dominion Voting System machines. But, like several of those counties, it plans to use Clear Ballot machines, too.

Starting in early December, the county also plans to do a hand count of all those ballots, a process that also could take weeks.

Additionally, the county is paying extra to post, for free, all ballots on the internet, allowing anyone who wishes to conduct their own count.

“We are proud Mesa County will now have what is arguably the most secure and transparent election system in the United States,” commissioners said in a statement.

“Our approach includes using both software systems approved by the state, which we will use to tabulate the vote, backed up by a hand count and posting of ballot images for any individual or organization to further validate the vote on their own.”