Update Aug. 16 at 10:15p.m.: The Secretary of State announced Monday clerk Tina Peters will no longer be allowed to oversee the election this fall. Secretary Jena Griswold said her office has confirmed an additional security breach, finding that in May, on a Sunday evening after hours, Peters brought an unauthorized person into a secure room where Mesa County’s election equipment is stored. According to Griswold, it appears copies of the county’s election management software and passwords were shared with people who believe the 2020 election was rigged.
Our original story continues below:
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said the Mesa County Clerk allowed an unauthorized person into a secure facility during an annual upgrade to the county’s election equipment software.
That security breach means Mesa County will not be able to use the equipment for its fall election, and the clerk, Tina Peters, could be in legal trouble.
The unauthorized access did not create an imminent, direct security risk to Colorado's elections, according to Griswold. But her office’s investigation confirmed the 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.
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 Mesa County's deputy clerk both did not respond to CPR’s request 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 Mesa County security breach happened
At a press conference Thursday Griswold explained how the security breach occurred.
She said her investigators found that someone logged in under the name of Gerald Wood on a list of people who were present for a secure software update conducted by Dominion employees at the county election division in late May.
Griswold’s office did not provide any information about Wood beyond his name and said they are continuing to investigate who he is — including whether that is actually his name. Investigators later revealed that they believe Wood's identity was stolen and used by someone else who participated in the security breach.
Griswold said the man’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's DA is also investigating the breach, and Dominion Voting Systems is cooperating
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 CPR. “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 her investigators found Peters ordered her staff to turn off the video surveillance that is meant to monitor the voting machines a week before the breach, 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 attending a ‘cyber symposium’ in South Dakota hosted by Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow. Lindell has become a major 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 in excess of $1.3 billion.
Peters said Griswold has targeted her office because 'I'm a conservative and she's not'
At the conference Peters said Griswold’s investigation is politically motivated.
“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,” Peters said.
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 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.”
Officials have criticized Peters, but so far have not called on her to step down
Matt Crane, head of the Colorado County Clerks Association, had harsh words for what occurred in Mesa County. But he emphasized that the breach only affected local election machines.
“It was a solo, intentional and selfish act that jeopardized the conduct of 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,” Crane said. “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 long-time employee of the clerk's office. She faced widespread blowback last year when her office discovered 574 ballots that were never collected from a dropbox during the fall 2019 election.
Peters survived an effort to recall her from office over the ballots and other issues, including claims that she failed to maintain adequate staffing in the election division.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with a response from the Mesa County Board of Commissioners, and to reflect investigators belief that Fruita resident Gerald Wood was not involved in the security breach.
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!