Voting Data From A Colorado County Was Leaked Online. Now The Clerk Is In Hiding

Sep 3, 2021
Originally published on September 3, 2021 6:34 pm

It's been nearly a month since sensitive data about voting equipment in Colorado's Mesa County was posted online by conspiracy theorists eager to cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election.

At the center of the criminal investigation into how that information was released is county clerk Tina Peters, whose whereabouts remain unknown. She hasn't returned to work in Mesa County since the data breach was announced.

The FBI is also investigating the case.

One reason why the Mesa County security breach is particularly significant is because it uses equipment from Dominion Voting Systems, one of the country's biggest vendors of election equipment. The company is also at the center of many of the conspiracy theories about the 2020 election that claim the ballot counting was somehow rigged against former President Donald Trump. (Dominion is pursuing a number of defamation suits against both pro-Trump news outlets and Trump advisers over the conspiracy theories.)

Most election officials around the country have spent the better part of the last year and a half fighting conspiracy theories spouted by Trump and his allies, but Peters seemed to embrace the falsehoods and fueled them.

Just as state officials announced a probe, Peters was attending and speaking at a conference hosted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell that pushed more falsehoods about the 2020 election.

"I've listened to people. I looked at it objectively, and there's some discrepancies there that I cannot deny. And I tell people, I say, 'I can't unsee some of these things,' " Peters told attendees at the conference.

''She needs to come back to work''

The Mesa County clerk and recorder's offices in Grand Junction.
Hart Van Denburg / CPR News

Peters is being sheltered by Lindell, a serial promoter of false election fraud claims. He says Peters fears for her safety if she returns home.

Local county commissioners say Peters needs to return to oversee the other parts of her job and staff.

"She's in hiding by her own admission," said Commissioner Scott McInnis, who like Peters is a Republican.

"We want to make sure we take the threats against her very, very seriously. We want to make sure she's protected, but she needs to come back to work."

Peters was first elected in 2018, and her tenure as the top local election official in the rural, western Colorado county has occasionally been controversial. In February 2020, her office admitted to finding 574 uncounted ballots from a 2019 election, leading to a state probe and calls for her resignation.

The problems at the clerk's office extend beyond Peters. On Thursday her deputy, Belinda Knisley, was charged with second-degree burglary and a cybercrime over entering the building while she was suspended, pending an investigation into unprofessional and inappropriate conduct in the workplace.

Earlier this week, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold filed a lawsuit to prevent Peters from having any role in the county's upcoming fall election.

Mesa County is a conservative area where voters strongly backed Trump last fall. While some residents say they want Peters voted out of office or recalled, she also has vocal backers. Recently, several hundred supporters gathered for a rally outside the clerk's office, chanting, "We love Tina!"

"I feel that there was definitely election fraud, and we need to get to the bottom of it," said Shelly Lucas, who lives in the area and attended the rally. "It's been in every county, every state. And I want to know about it."

''It is so completely outside the norm''

Colorado's audits show that there were no problems with the state's election. In fact, election officials from around the country consider the state to have some of the best-run elections in the United States. There are paper ballots and post-election audits to make sure the tallies match what the machines count.

Mesa County has had to spend nearly $1 million to renew a contract with Dominion after the state banned the compromised machines from being used this fall. In particular, local prosecutors and the FBI have open investigations into whether Peters gave an unauthorized person access to the voting machine software. No criminal charges have been filed against her.

Matt Masterson, then-an election security adviser to the federal government, testifies before a House committee in 2019.
Susan Walsh / AP

"It's stunning to me as an election professional because it is so completely outside the norm," said Matt Masterson, who led election security work at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last year and is now a policy fellow at Stanford University.

Historically, Masterson said Democratic and Republican officials have typically administered elections in a professional, nonpartisan way.

"Because they know that their job is to be protectors of democracy, of our system, of our elections. And this is the first time in my memory that I can recall an election official brazenly shirking that duty in pursuit of their own benefit in such a way."

This incident has made Masterson fearful about the 2022 elections.

"[F]or these ongoing conspiracies and lies to continue to be perpetrated for political and financial gain is sad," he says, "and sells out our democracy at a time when election officials risk their health and safety to do this."

Masterson says if there isn't accountability in Mesa County, he worries other partisan-minded election officials could be inspired to act the same way.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Election officials around the country continue to face threats because of lies that they intentionally mishandled last year's election. But as Colorado Public Radio's Bente Birkeland reports, one local election official in that state stands accused of feeding those very conspiracy theories.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, a conspiracy website published passwords and sensitive information about Mesa County's election equipment. State officials soon pointed fingers at the local county clerk, Tina Peters. The county uses equipment from Dominion Voting Systems. That company is at the heart of many lies that it somehow rigged the 2020 election against Donald Trump. At the same time the state announced its probe, Peters attended and spoke at a conference that pushed more falsehoods about the 2020 election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TINA PETERS: I've listened to people. I've looked at it objectively. And there are some discrepancies there that I cannot deny. And I tell people, I say, I cannot unsee some of these things.

BIRKELAND: Local prosecutors and the FBI have opened investigations into whether Peters gave an unauthorized person access to the voting machines. So far, there's no criminal charges against her. But the state has filed a lawsuit to prevent Peters from having any role in upcoming elections this fall. She has not been back to work. And her whereabouts are unknown.

MATT MASTERSON: It's stunning to me as an election professional because it is so completely outside the norm.

BIRKELAND: Matt Masterson lead election security work at the Department of Homeland Security last year. He's now at Stanford University. Historically, Masterson says Democrats and Republicans have administered elections in a professional, nonpartisan way.

MASTERSON: Because they know that their job is to be protectors of democracy, of our system, of our elections. And this is the first time in my memory that I can recall an election official brazenly shirking that duty in pursuit of their own benefits.

BIRKELAND: Peters is being sheltered by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. He's a serial promoter of false election fraud claims and says Peters fears for her safety. Back in Colorado, local county commissioners say she needs to be on the job. Commissioner Scott McInnis is a fellow Republican.

SCOTT MCINNIS: She's in hiding by her own admission. We want to make sure we take the threats against her very, very seriously. We want to make sure she's protected. But she needs to come back to work.

BIRKELAND: While some residents in this conservative and largely rural area want Peters voted out of office or recalled, she also has backers.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) We love Peters. We love Peters.

BIRKELAND: Shelley Lucas (ph) attended a recent rally to support Peters. She says if Peters did help leak information about Dominion voting machines, that's a good thing.

SHELLEY LUCAS: I feel that there was definitely election fraud. And we need to get to the bottom of it. It's been in every county, every state. And I want to know about it.

BIRKELAND: Colorado's audits show that there were no problems with the state's election. In fact, election officials from around the country consider the state to be the gold standard. There are paper ballots and audits to make sure the tallies match what the machines count. This incident has made Matt Masterson, the election security expert, fearful about the 2022 elections.

MASTERSON: And for these ongoing conspiracies and lies to continue to be perpetrated for political and financial gain is sad and sells out our democracy at a time when election officials risk their health and safety to do this.

BIRKELAND: Masterson says if there isn't accountability in Mesa County, he worries other partisan-minded election officials could be inspired to act the same way.

For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "STARRY SKIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.