Mesa County Clerk Fights To Keep Her Job In New Court Filing

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A ballot drop box outside the Mesa County Clerk and Recorder’s offices in Grand Junction on Thursday, August 26, 2021.

Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters, who is embroiled in an election security scandal, has denied wrongdoing and requested to remain in her role overseeing elections this fall. 

Her attorney said Peters was well within her legal right to share information about the county’s Dominion Voting Systems equipment with a non-employee during an annual system upgrade. 

Data from the machines were featured in screenshots shared by QAnon supporters and released by the right-wing website Gateway Pundit, by those eager to cast doubt on the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

A court filing in response to an effort to remove Peters from overseeing elections in Mesa said the leak of information was not Peters’ intent, but rather she was trying to preserve records and to better analyze how the state conducted system updates.

“Unfortunately, there was an unauthorized release of information on one or more publicly available web sites,” said a filing in District Court in Mesa County from attorney Scott Gessler. 

In the filing, Gessler, a Republican and former Colorado secretary of state, said the decision by current Secretary of State Jena Griswold to file a lawsuit to remove Peters from overseeing this fall’s election as a result was “wholly disproportionate” and violates Colorado law, “which vests local control over elections in a locally-elected official.”  

Mesa county’s district attorney and the FBI are investigating allegations that Peters gave an unauthorized person access to the Dominion election management software and passwords, but no criminal charges have been filed against Peters or anyone else in the dispute.

After the revelations about the data’s unauthorized release, Peters, who has become a favorite of election conspiracy theorists around the country, appeared at a conference of election conspiracy adherents, and then went into hiding. She said she feared for her personal safety. Peters returned to Mesa county earlier this week to attend a rally. She has now created a website to raise money for her legal defense. She vowed to fight and said, “we can take back our country.”

“Some powerful people don't want us to look at the facts,” she said. “In fact, they're trying to remove me as the Mesa county recorder just for doing my job,” Peters said. 

Peters, who is a Republican, called the state’s efforts politically motivated. Griswold is a Democrat.

“I need your support,” Peters told a few hundred people at a church in Grand Junction Thursday evening. 

She had not been in Colorado for more than a month and said she was working remotely.

Griswold's suit seeks to officially prevent Peters from having any role in the county’s upcoming fall election because of the security breach.  

“We know that that information was posted by an extreme conspiracy theorist,” Griswold said.

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, with headquarters in Denver, 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.

Peters said she did allow someone outside of her office to capture images because she was concerned Griswold’s office would not preserve records during the annual upgrade to the electronic voting machines.

“ response to her concerns, she retained a consultant to image the hard drive of the county’s electronic vote-tabulating equipment,” according to her filing.

The filing said the state’s emergency rule to ban consultants from the process was only issued after the incident occured. 

“The new rule prevents clerks and recorders from hiring non-employee consultants with the necessary expertise to evaluate, audit, or otherwise ensure electronic vote-tabulating equipment, and other election equipment, functions correctly and in accordance with Colorado law.” 

Peters said the images were meant to determine whether election records were destroyed and evaluate the electronic equipment that tabulates votes from paper ballots. 

“Following the 2020 election, a sizeable portion of Mesa County voters raised serious questions about the reliability and accuracy of Mesa County’s electronic vote tabulating equipment,” according to the legal filing.

No meaningful discrepancies have been found anywhere related to the presidential election. While losing Colorado, Donald Trump won the balloting in Mesa County with nearly 57,000 of the nearly 91,000 ballots cast.

A spokesperson for Griswold’s office did not immediately return a request for comment about the Peters filing. 

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 nation. There are paper ballots, which are preserved, and post-election audits to make sure the tallies match what the machines count.

The legal filing also asks a judge to reinstate Peters’ deputy, Belinda Knisley. 

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.

“Despite Knisley’s request for additional information, neither the head of  Human Resources nor the County Administrator have provided any details as to the alleged  “inappropriate” behavior,” states the filing.

Peters was first elected in 2018, and her tenure as the top local election official in the rural 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 state told CPR News an evidentiary hearing on the lawsuit to remove Peters is scheduled for Sep. 30 and briefs must be submitted to the court by Sep. 27.