Election disinformation has Colorado clerks trying new tactics to assure voters

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Poll workers deposit ballots from voters in the drive-through lane at the CentrePoint Plaza polling station in Aurora on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

If you want to see the kind of disinformation clerks in Colorado are up against, it is on full display in the video Republican state lawmaker Ron Hanks made to announce his run for U.S. Senate. 

It opens with Hanks standing next to a truck bed that holds a rifle and a large printer bearing the label 'Dominion Voting Machine.' Most counties in Colorado use Dominion’s equipment and the Denver-based company is at the heart of false claims that it somehow rigged the 2020 election against Donald Trump.

“As our next Senator, I’ll fight for our conservative values, and I’ll start by targeting our broken election system,” he tells viewers. Moments later he fires a shot that causes the machine to explode.

In this still from his campaign announcement video, Hanks poses with a rifle and a mock ballot tabulating machine.

While Colorado’s U.S. Senate election isn’t until 2022, Hanks recently asked his supporters to call his team if they find anything they believe is fraud during this year’s election.

“There are multiple scenarios that could be revealed, and any evidence we gather will tighten the noose,” stated Hanks in the email.

The whole thing has left Fremont County Clerk Justin Grantham frustrated.

“I am his county clerk and recorder. And for him to spout out election fraud and not even come hear it from the trusted source,” said Grantham, a Republican.

Grantham said he has an open door policy to anyone who has concerns, but Hanks has not responded to invitations to come talk about how Colorado’s elections work.

Ahead of the upcoming election, county clerks in Colorado are doing more than ever before to combat disinformation about the security and reliability of the state’s voting systems. But they’re up against false claims of fraud that have spread around the state in the wake of last year’s presidential election.

Grantham recently spoke at a forum hosted by the local Republican party, going over the checks and balances in Colorado’s voting system, including the use of bipartisan election teams, paper ballots, and risk-limiting audits to ensure accuracy. 

“A lot of people came up to me afterwards and said, ‘thank you for doing this and we feel better about what's going on here in Fremont,’” Grantham said. 

For clerks, voter outreach has always been part of the job. But as false claims ramp up, they say there’s an even greater urgency. 

It’s a situation that’s been made more complicated by the actions of Republican clerk Tina Peters in Mesa County. In the name of hunting for fraud, Peters allowed an unauthorized person to capture images from the county’s Dominion voting machines. Peters defends her decision, but the security breach led a judge to ban her from overseeing this election and she’s under a federal criminal investigation.

Weld County’s clerk, Republican Carly Koppes, said she regularly hears from voters who believe Peters did the right thing.

“They're more bringing it up with, ‘we want you to stand with Tina and we expect you to do what she did,’” said Koppes. “I just say respectfully, ‘you know, it's currently in litigation and that I really have no comment.’”

While Koppes thinks a segment of election fraud believers won’t be swayed by anything she tells them, she tries to see these conversations as an opportunity to teach. She hosts a lot of public tours and said some people do have genuine questions about how elections work.

“I am the type of person that always tries to find the silver lining in any situation, no matter how dire it may be looking,” she said. “They're absolutely within their right to ask questions about the elections and I'm more than happy to help guide them to the correct information.”

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Vicky Sears drops a ballot in a dropbox outside of Greeley City Hall. Oct. 24, 2021.

Efforts to reassure doubting voters go beyond outreach; in many counties, clerks are adding new procedures to back up the accuracy of their results. 

Several say they will count ballots not just on Dominion machines but also run them again through the machines of Dominion’s competitor, Clear Ballot. Mesa plans to do hand recounts of all its ballots on top of that.

El Paso county has created a citizen audit tool and put images of all its ballots online, a huge extra task. Over the summer, the county re-ran all of the ballots for the presidential race through Clear Ballot machines, and plans to do that again after this election. 

“It came within just a few votes of the count that was done by our Dominion equipment so that citizens can have the utmost confidence in our election results,” said Republican Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman. 

Broerman said he’s talked to over a thousand people about the election, but notes that claims of election fraud aren’t new.

“There's been that undercurrent, but not to the level that it's been this year. It's just caused us here as election administrators and officials to redouble our efforts, because we're confident in our process.”

While election integrity concerns are mostly held by Republican voters, Democratic counties have also stepped up their work to build trust. 

Denver’s clerk sent residents a mailer around the time ballots went out, with information about the office’s transparency and accessibility features. In Boulder, ballot instructions mailed to every voter include a new section on combating election mis- and disinformation. Boulder is also continuing with an election alert hotline it created last year that lets people report misinformation so the county can quickly combat it.

“There has been no evidence to demonstrate that these claims that the election was stolen are true,” said Democratic Boulder Clerk Molly Fitzpatrick. “No one is able to back up that claim. And I think it is incredibly disheartening because I think high participation (in) elections, civic engagement is the cornerstone of a healthy and vibrant democracy.”

For Peg Perl, the director of elections in Arapahoe county, the current climate is like nothing she’s seen in nearly twenty years in the field. Her county is also adding new tactics, including an election transparency page and live streaming the pre-election accuracy check on its voting equipment.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Voting at the Arapahoe County Administration building on Prince Street in Littleton on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. .

“It's a small number of people who can get very loud and very angry and very nasty in their rhetoric who can drown out all the other folks who trust the system, who understand the system,” said Perl.

Clerks say they don’t like how political the job is becoming and the partisan nature of election fraud claims. In La Plata county, that led clerk Tiffany Lee to switch her affiliation last year, from Republican to Unaffiliated. 

“The reason I did it is I strongly believe that these positions shouldn't be partisan. I believe we should be elected, but having a label behind us, you know, means nothing.” She added that she wants people to look at what a clerk has accomplished, not which party they belong to.

She believes the job is more critical now than ever. 

“There's so many websites and social media out there that's wrong and incorrect, just reach out to your county clerks.“

While clerks are working hard to reassure voters this year around the off-year election, they know it’s only a fraction of the intensity they’re likely to face in 2022, when the governor’s office, an U.S. Senate seat and much more will be on the ballot.