Colorado excels at election security. But conspiracy theorists are still harassing county clerks

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15min 18sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Test ballots displayed at the Arapahoe County Elections Facility and Warehouse on Federal Boulevard in Littleton, Thursday, June 9, 2022. The process of sending out Colorado 2022 primary election ballots began June 6th and the first returns are starting to arrive and the Arapahoe County and similar facilities.

The 2022 primaries are in the books. But even as votes were counted and winners were announced, some Colorado Republican candidates pushed the idea that the results from this, and past elections, could not be trusted.

Greg Lopez, Ron Hanks and Tina Peters were among the candidates who ran on platforms that questioned the security of the American election process, despite a plethora of evidence to refute those claims. All lost in their respective races. Colorado’s electoral system is ranked as the second most-secure in the nation by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank based in Washington, D.C.  

For Matt Crane, the executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, the accusations by some candidates and voters have made life difficult for county clerks. He said that they are increasingly subject to verbal abuse from the public.

“It's really frustrating when people make up these problems, or greatly exaggerate problems and scare people for votes, and I wish that they would stop messing with our election process like that,” Crane told Colorado Matters in an interview with senior host Ryan Warner.

Despite the steps already taken regarding election security, Crane acknowledged that there’s still room for improved access and integrity when it comes to elections.

“Perfection is unattainable,” he said. “But we keep striving for it.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ryan Warner: Matt, I'm pleased to meet you. Thanks for being with us.

Matt Crane: Good morning. Nice to meet you as well.

Warner: First off, did the primary election generally go smoothly? Any hiccups?

Crane: It went very smoothly across the state. Clerks and their teams did a great job. Our citizen election judges, the people who actually run these elections and conduct them, did a fantastic job.

Warner: Our citizen election judges. Help us understand the role they play.

Crane: So, that's such a great question. I think there's this great misconception about elections and how they run here in Colorado. Like, it's an elected clerk, like they're the great and all powerful Oz behind a curtain fixing things and doing that kind of thing. And nothing could be further from the truth. It's our friends and our neighbors, our church members, our Elks Lodge members, our PTA members, it's our citizens that come together and serve as election judges. So they're checking in people at voting service and polling centers. They're the people that are actually tabulating the ballots at our central account facilities, doing signature verification. There are ballot security teams going out to our ballot drop boxes to pick up those ballots and bring them back. So it's not the clerk who's actually conducting the election. It's your friends and your neighbors who are doing this work.

Warner: Are those judges trained, and do you need more of them?

Crane: We always need more judges. And there is extensive training. And the training... I started in elections here in Colorado in 2000, and it has gotten so much better and so much more sophisticated over that period of time so that people are prepared to, one, handle the technology, and two, that make sure voting can happen very efficiently and try to get people in and out of the vote centers very quickly.

Warner: But do I want to see someone that I might see at my synagogue's Oneg after Shabbat services, do I want to see them collecting ballots from the drop box, for instance? Talk to me about why you place great confidence in that sort of citizen approach.

Crane: I think it does provide greater confidence to citizens if they look and say, "Oh my gosh, there's my synagogue, I know him from the synagogue, or her from the synagogue, she's the one picking up ballots. Wow. That gives me some comfort." And it's important that people know that it is your friends and your neighbors, your synagogue members, your church members, it's people you know from all walks of life that are doing this work.

Warner: I believe you're a Republican.

Crane: Yes, sir.

Warner: I wonder how you feel about the defeat of Tina Peters? Who by the way, was barred from overseeing elections in her own county.

Crane: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So-

Warner: Am I putting you in a weird position?

Crane: You're not putting me in a weird position actually, I've, I've been speaking out more and more about this. I mean, there's certain things you can rely on in life, right? Death taxes, and Tina Peters lying about elections. And what she has done to undermine voter confidence based on a lie, she's potentially broken the law, she's violated her oath of office. And all she's done is weaken election integrity, not strengthen it. So as a Republican, who's seen the impacts of these lies going back to November 2020, where we see that President Trump's own legal team knew that the stuff about the voting systems was ridiculous. They continued with it. As a Republican, we lost control of the U.S. Senate in large part because of this. When Republicans lost the Georgia Senate runoff elections, because the president and Lin Wood and others were running around actually telling people, “Republicans,don't vote, that'll show the algorithm that cost President Trump the election." And voter turnout was suppressed. So does this get me mad? Yeah, you're darn right it does. And for Tina to do what she did, she never took the time to learn her systems or to learn the election processes, which made her susceptible to these bad actors. And then she became a willing participant in undermining election integrity and voter confidence. And I think it's disgraceful.

Warner: Do you have conversations with people who have internalized and hold now as an article of faith, the Big Lie?

Crane: I do.

Warner: And how do you disabuse them of this notion?

Crane: So it's just conversations and one on one conversation, sometimes it's in meetings. I've gone into meetings to somewhat hostile crowds. But you have to stand up and tell the truth and you can't let them intimidate you or back you down, even if you have people yelling at you or booing you or those kinds of things.

Warner: Has that happened to you? You've been yelled at and booed at?

Crane: Oh sure. Oh sure. And it's fine because the juice is worth the squeeze, right? The truth matters. So we're going to do what we can, not just me, but other local election officials across the state. We're going to do what we can to be open and transparent and talk about what's real. And what really happens in our elections. It's important that people hear that.

Warner: I wonder if that is also an opportunity to invite them to witness it, or to be a part of it.

Crane: Yes, absolutely. So every chance we get, to your question earlier, do we need more election judges? The answer is always yes. But what we do as election officials is say, "Hey, look, if you have questions, come talk to us." And by the way, when we say that there's no cracking in our voting systems, or that Tina Peters is a liar about what she's talking about, it doesn't mean that as election administrators, we don't see room for improvement in both access and integrity. So we will keep moving. Perfection is unattainable, but we keep striving for it.

Warner: Well, give me an example of that in Colorado. What would you like to see? I don't know, investments or new technology.

Crane: So, there's so much I'd like to see. As an association, we released a letter last year talking about the four things that we would like to improve upon first. One was a stronger signature verification audit. Right now here in Colorado, there's a very loose requirement about periodically auditing signature verification done by judges. So we've actually formed a committee with election officials here in Colorado, political party representatives, and election experts from across the country, to come together to say, "Okay, we need to create a more robust audit that will help provide voter confidence that signature verification is happening properly." And if it reveals any gaps, we want to know that too, so that we can go and close those gaps.

Warner: And that could be about making sure people who are properly voting, that their vote counts.

Crane: One-hundred percent. Absolutely. That's right. So we want to attack signature verification audits. We want to do voter registration audits, build upon what's already done. We want to take our ballot images, and our cast vote records, the cast vote records are the records from the voting system that tell you how the system interpreted your ballot. So right now, those are available under our Colorado Open Records Act, but it can be very costly to provide those because there has to be redaction so that we can protect ballot anonymity, right? Nobody has a right to know how you voted. So, we're seeking ways, funding. We're talking to nonprofit groups that are out there that have access to people who can create these technologies, hopefully for free, that can do redaction so that we can put all of this information out online after each election for free. So that if you decide on a Friday night, you know what? I want to go on and do a hand recount of my own precinct in Denver or wherever you live, you can do that. We aren't afraid of sunshine as election officials. We welcome it. We're trying to figure out ways to make our processes and our material, our data, more available to the public.

Warner: This makes me wonder then, Matt, if I want to be sure my vote was counted properly. I mean, I know I get that email that says your ballot was processed. But if I want to make sure, like I voted for John Smith, did that get counted? Is there any way to do that?

Crane: So there's no way to do that because, so let's say if you vote your mail ballot, you send it in, you sign it. Once it goes through signature verification to validate your eligibility and that it's your signature, the envelope is separated from the ballot. So at that particular time, there is no way to trace your ballot back to you. Now, what we've done, Colorado has led the nation in developing post-election tabulation audits to demonstrate that our systems are tabulating ballots correctly. In Colorado, we do what's called the RLA, the Risk-Limiting Audit, which is now considered the national best practice for post-election tabulation audits. And so, those audits, they provide a statistical certainty that the equipment worked correctly and that the outcomes are correct. And so, it's those types of things that we do to try to build voter confidence, to say, you know what? Yes, your ballot was counted correctly.

Warner: Interesting. So those audits aren't matching names to votes, but they're saying the machine counted this as a vote for John Smith?

Crane: Yes.

Warner: And did it do so properly?

Crane: Yes.

Warner: Did it read that filled-in bubble properly?

Crane: That's exactly right. We go back to the original paper ballot marked by the voter and we compare it to the cast vote record.

Warner: Got it. We heard from several candidates, both of whom lost by the way, Ron Hanks and Greg Lopez, who said, "The voter roles are a mess." That became something of a touchstone for some candidates, the voter roles are a mess. Is that true? What does that mean? They didn't provide much in the way of specificity by the way.

Crane: Well, of course they never do, right? It's a way for them to scare voters into voting for them. And it's really frustrating when people make up these problems, or greatly exaggerate problems and scare people for votes. And I wish that they would stop messing with our election process like that.

Warner: Right. And maybe it's helpful to say here, it's not that there aren't errant issues, but we're talking about whether something is a pattern or pervasive.

Crane: Right. Again, a hundred percent accuracy I think is not possible. But I think what we do in Colorado is pretty darn good and ahead of where most of the rest of the country is. Ironically, for my friends on the right, the Heritage Foundation came out with an election integrity scorecard back in January, and they graded Colorado extremely high on the things that we do to maintain our voter roles.

Warner: Do dead people vote here?

Crane: No. No dead people don't vote. This is so funny, but infuriating. There was one of these groups that's been going around saying they’re for election integrity, last year turned in a list of 759 names to the El Paso County DA, saying that these people are dead. And ballots were cast in their name. They got exactly one right out of 759, The clerk, Chuck Berman in El Paso County and his great team down there, they caught that during signature verification, the ballot was rejected, and it already been sent over to the district attorney's office. So what we're finding with these people that go out and look at, and they do these self-examination of the voter roles, they don't understand the data, and they don't have all the data the clerk has. For instance, one of the really nutty election deniers just went out recently and said, Pam Anderson, who just won yesterday…

Warner: Yeah, the Republican.

Carne: …was registered to vote in two counties and how this was a terrible look. She never bothered to validate that the date of birth was different, and it's not uncommon to have two people with the same name. So just like in Mesa County, the quality of the work that these election deniers do is really poor, but that doesn't stop them from going out and trying to brainwash people that there are these huge issues with our election system.

Warner: We heard from at least one Republican voter yesterday, who doesn't trust vote-by-mail because of all of the misinformation that is circulated. Didn't even trust a drop box. She turned her ballot in, in person. I thought about the fuel that she might have consumed to do that and what the cost of that is. And it strikes me, that is the cost of this. Is the lack of faith. And perhaps, unnecessarily.

Crane: Right. Well, I would say to date, it certainly is unnecessary. We run good elections here in Colorado. There has been no evidence of any systemic fraud. And we look for that.

Warner: Matt, are you doing okay?

Crane: Yeah, I'm doing well.

Warner: Okay. Have you faced threats?

Crane: I have over the last year. Yes.

Warner: Do you feel that's about to ease?

Crane: No. I don't. I think that... Well, first of all, let me say, I mean, it was last year, especially after the initial Mesa County things happened. But do I think that these people, that the hardcore believers are going away and the people who say stupid things are going away? Unfortunately I don't.

Warner: Thank you for your time.

Crane: You bet. Thank you.