Election security bill inspired by Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters headed to governor’s desk

Colorado Primary Sorting Ballots Adams County
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Election workers sort and manage ballots at the Adams County Government Center in Brighton on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

Updated: Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 153 on June 2, 2022.

Democrats in Colorado’s legislature have passed a bill that seeks to prevent insider security threats to the state’s election system.

The legislation adds more training requirements for county clerks and certain election staff, bars counties from copying voting machine hard drives without state permission, mandates key card access and full-time video monitoring of election equipment, and increases penalties for security breaches.

It’s a response to the security breach that occurred in Mesa County last year. The Republican clerk, Tina Peters, is facing state charges related to election tampering, identity theft and misconduct. She is alleged to have compromised Mesa county’s voting machines while searching for proof of fraud in the 2020 election. Her deputy clerk is also facing charges.

While support for the bill was strongly divided on partisan lines, Republicans did win some concessions from Democrats.

Early on, they agreed to remove a provision from Senate Bill 153 that would have banned anyone overseeing elections from knowingly or recklessly making false statements about the process, an effort that raised First Amendment concerns.

Republican lawmakers also negotiated a late change to strike a requirement that county clerks and staff receive training on how to combat disinformation and misinformation. 

“It wasn't a critical part of the bill,” said Democratic Senate President Steve Fenberg, the measure’s main sponsor. “It was something that the clerks requested, to be added to the list of topics for the trainings.” 

He also noted that leaving this language out of the bill doesn’t prevent clerks from doing training about misinformation.  

Even though Democrats removed some of the most controversial provisions, the final vote in the House was still strictly along party lines. In the Senate it only had one Republican supporter.

“Where the bill's at now is not as bad,”  said Republican Rep. Matt Soper who represents Mesa County at the Capitol. He noted that it was hard for Republicans to embrace the proposal because of all of the politics behind it.  

The Colorado GOP mobilized against the bill, while Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold championed it. 

“She's made the office incredibly partisan, and it didn't have to be that way,” Soper said in an earlier interview about Griswold. “It makes the politics around this very difficult to vote for, even if reading through the bill there’s a lot of things that Republicans and Democrats could agree with here.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters at the 2022 Colorado Republican State Assembly on April 9, 2022, at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs.

As the bill responds to the Mesa County security breach, Tina Peters vies to be Colorado's next Secretary of State.

Griswold is running for reelection and her fundraising emails have routinely highlighted her investigation of Peters. She has also developed a national profile as a critic of Republican-led voting policies.

Peters, who in addition to the state charges, is under a separate federal investigation, is one of three Republicans in a primary to see who will take on Griswold this fall. She testified against the election security bill, calling it a “power grab” and accusing Democrats of only introducing it because she’s running for Secretary of State. 

The bill does expand the authority of the Secretary of State to enforce election rules, but was in the works before Peters announced her bid.

Peters spent much of her testimony talking about her personal situation and defending her actions. She said she was not on “a fishing expedition to disprove the 2020 election” but just responding to her constituents who were raising concerns and had doubts about the state’s election processes. 

“I think a lot of attention, a lot of light has been shone on me to demonize me for what I did, which was to preserve election records, which is my job,” said Peters.

Peters and her supporters claim the information she copied from election machine hard drives counts as election records, which clerks are required to preserve under state law, a position the state is disputing in court. A judge this week barred her from overseeing Mesa County's 2022 primary and general elections.

The bipartisan Colorado County Clerks Association has denounced Peters’ actions and pushed for more stringent laws to try to prevent similar situations in the future. Audits in Colorado and hand counts have confirmed the accuracy of the results of the 2020 election and show that the paper ballots match the tallies on the voting machines. 

Pueblo Clerk and Recorder Gilbert “Bo” Ortiz, a Democrat and current chair of the Clerk’s Association, has called Peters’ alleged actions “a breach of public trust” and said clerks across the state have since asked for more accountability for election officials. Clerks in both parties strongly backed Senate bill 153.