Bill strengthening election security policies advances in Colorado legislature

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Samantha Rhodes completes her civic duty for the November, 2020 election outside of the Carla Madison Rec Center on Colfax Avenue. Oct. 16, 2020.

A Colorado bill aimed at protecting the state’s election system from insider security threats won initial approval in the Senate Thursday after backers agreed to some significant changes.

They dropped a provision that would have barred those who oversee elections from knowingly or recklessly making false statements about the process.

The measure was crafted in response to Mesa County’s Republican Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters, who is under indictment for allegedly compromising her county’s voting machines while searching for proof of fraud in the 2020 election.

Critics had focused on a provision in the original bill that tried to prevent misinformation and disinformation. A prominent First Amendment attorney warned it could be problematic to try to regulate speech in that way, a concern also raised by the Colorado GOP, who said it was unconstitutional.

The main sponsor of SB22-153, Democratic Senate President Steve Fenberg, said he doesn’t believe banning officials from spreading misinformation about elections violates free speech, but acknowledged the provision would likely be unenforceable in practice. He also didn’t want controversy over the idea to detract from the overall measure. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

“I think we all, if you remove politics, we probably all agree” with the idea behind the provision, said Fenberg. Officials who oversee elections “probably shouldn't lie to people for the purposes of misinforming them.”

Many elements of the bill correspond directly to things Peters is alleged to have done, like directing staff to turn off video surveillance of voting equipment, and allowing someone from outside her office to copy the hard drives and take pictures of system passwords, which ended up being posted online. The bill creates new crimes and increases penalties for some existing ones.

The proposal also aims to prevent election officials from falling prey to misinformation about the voting system by requiring more training to do their jobs.

Colorado’s County Clerks Association, which is mostly made up of Republicans, backs the bill and testified in strong support when it cleared its first committee hearing. 

“The CCCA pushed to create greater accountability for current and future Colorado election officials, recognizing that low-information election officials make likelier targets for grifters and bad actors,” said Democratic Pueblo County Clerk and Recorder Gilbert Ortiz, the organization’s current president.