With an eye to 2024, county clerk turnover prompts concerns for smooth elections

· Oct. 16, 2023, 1:24 pm
Samantha Rhodes completes her civic duty for the November, 2020 election outside of the Carla Madison Rec Center on Colfax Avenue. Oct. 16, 2020.Samantha Rhodes completes her civic duty for the November, 2020 election outside of the Carla Madison Rec Center on Colfax Avenue. Oct. 16, 2020.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.

Twenty-four of Colorado’s counties will see their 2024 elections administered by a different county clerk than in 2020. 

That information was part of a new report published by the non-partisan group, Issue One, which also found that Colorado was going to lose a collective 314 years of election experience as a result of the staffing turnover. 

Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, spoke with Colorado Matters Host Ryan Warner about what the report means, concerns for future elections, and how to fight election disinformation. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Ryan Warner:  How much should this turnover, this brain drain of experience concern us?

Matt Crane: It is concerning whenever we lose that much experience, especially coming into what many expect to be a very difficult 2024 election cycle. Some of those folks left because of natural attrition due to term limits, but then there's no question that some of the pressure from The Big Lie has made it a much more hostile environment for election officials and that impacted some people deciding to leave their office before maybe they would've otherwise.

Warner: Can you say more about what they faced that would've driven them out?

Crane: It's the whole range from threats, intimidation to outright death threats, the whole nine yards. Stalking, their information being put online, people showing up at their house, knocking on their doors, demanding to know about election fraud. It's really a whole wide array of things that have happened to election officials.

Warner: Does that mean that people who embrace The Big Lie succeeded to some extent if they're driving people out?

Crane: Unfortunately, yes. They have succeeded in that regard, which is unfortunate. They claim to be for election integrity, but all of their actions, whether it's pushing for terrible policy positions or forcing people out of the election industry, all they're doing is making our elections weaker, and so it's something really to ponder.

Warner: And there was just a fragment of a sentence that I want to zoom in on, which is that you looked ahead to the next presidential election and you don't think it's going to be easy to administer.

Crane: We think that there's going to be a lot of outside forces. Again, the people that keep talking about The Big Lie and pushing that are still there, they continue to talk about those narratives and lie about what happens in our elections. We know that's not going to go away. We expect next year to be more contentious than 2020.

Warner: Oh, that's hard to hear, as a journalist, as a voter. Why do you say that?

Crane: Because again, some of the same players are still involved. The people that have been pushing the narrative of a stolen election for the last three years, they're still pushing it. They're still making money on it. The grift continues to happen and so they will keep going with it as long as they can.

Warner: Do you have better tools this time around?

Crane: We do have better tools this time around. I think that we are more prepared for that kind of environment than we were coming into 2020, which is great. We spent a lot of time with these new clerks that have come in. It's about a third of our clerks that are new across the state. We spent a lot of time with them, training them, getting them ready, preparing them for what's to come next year.

Certainly after what we saw with the Tina Peters fiasco, we have put much more of an emphasis on training our folks, making sure they're dotting every i, crossing every t, understanding these jobs so that when they get these questions, they don't fall prey to the lies and disinformation like Tina did.

Warner: Tina Peters, former Mesa County clerk, helped drive a lot of the conspiracies around Colorado's elections. I'll say that her trial is set for February on charges related to official misconduct and tampering with election equipment. How do you think that case might shape Colorado's views on election integrity?

Crane: Well, for people that are based in reality, I think that if she's held to account for what she's allegedly done, I think it'll be a good day. For others, though, who hold her up as some kind of hero when she's not — if she is held to account, then they will see it as big government coming after a  ‘whistleblower,’ which again, she's not a whistleblower. It seems that she broke the law in numerous different ways. She's not a hero, not somebody to be celebrated.

Warner: You've called her a low-information clerk.

Crane: Yes. She never took the time to understand her job, the rules, the laws around elections or her systems. Previously, before 2022, if you were an election official, you had to be certified by the Colorado Secretary of State's office within two years. She never received that certification. It seems like she was more interested in winning a beauty pageant than being a serious elected official and policymaker. All of those things made her a prime target for these grifters and bad actors when they look around the state and say, which clerk can we get to help us with this? Who doesn't really know the job or the systems? Oh, it was Tina. 

Warner: I want to go back to the idea of the fact that clerks have tools they didn't have going into 2020. What are some of those tools? You said training. I know that any number of clerks also brought in folks suspicious of the election system, invited them to see the system, maybe even to volunteer. And as much as that might be the fox guarding the hen house, the idea was to get people to understand that the process is secure. Are you seeing more of that?

Crane: Yes, and we've had great success with that, inviting people in to be election judges because again, the clerk and recorder is not the great and powerful Oz behind the curtain pulling all the levers. It's our citizens who serve as election judges. It's our Elks Lodge members, our church or synagogue members, it's our PTA members. They're the ones who are verifying voter eligibility, checking the signatures on mail ballot envelopes, tabulating ballots. They're doing all that work. 

So, when people have questions — or even if they were outright deniers — and they come in and serve as election judges, what we're finding is they say, “wait, what I heard from so-and-so is absolutely not true. I've seen it. I've done it myself.” And even if they get to a point where they say, “okay, well, I trust it here in my county. I still have questions about other places, but I trust here in my county,” that's a big win for us, and then we will build it. We continue to build on that. 

In terms of some of those other tools, we see a much greater focus from different places, whether it's the federal government or the state government working to do physical security assessments of our buildings because we have to be concerned about the security of our folks right now.

Warner: Right. Let me be clear. There is the question of election security and then there is the question of the security of elections officials.

Crane: It is. And, in 2016, coming out of that, the focus was all on cyber because of what we saw foreign nation states doing in 2016. After 2020, that changed to, or it evolved more to physical security because of the threats against election officials, not just in the office but at their homes as well.

Warner: Given what new clerks might be in for, why do they want this job?

Crane: Well, I certainly think if you're in elections for a long time, we've always laughed and said, those of us who do this, we have a serious masochistic streak. But I can tell you that there is no greater feeling for an election official than when you send your team home on election night after you've released the results. There's still work to do, but there's such an amazing feeling of satisfaction and civic pride because you've just helped facilitate one of our greatest rights as Americans — the right to vote. When you're a part of that, it is truly a tremendous honor and a great feeling when you can do that. And that's what keeps bringing people back:  Our democracy, our republic, the juice is worth the squeeze and this is our ability to help and serve.

Warner: I’m not sure if I'm asking this question seeking comfort from you, Matt, or just your worldview here, but do you think that the system in Colorado, the election system, the democratic system, can withstand the forces of The Big Lie if you think that they'll be stronger this time around?

Crane: I do. I have great faith. I have great faith in the American people, the citizens of Colorado that ultimately good will prevail. We know that there are bad forces out there, bad actors who are trying to undermine this. They're not doing it for any higher calling for election integrity or cleaner elections. They're doing it to make money and for political power, and we are pushing back and we are winning in that war. As we bring people in and as we talk about what really happens, we are winning. We are winning that debate, and we will be relentless in continuing to spread the truth about what really happens in our elections.

Warner: Is part of your message here today volunteer? Be a part of it.

Crane: One-hundred percent. Again, we want people to come in and be election judges, serve, help, be watchers, help a candidate, come in and watch the process. There's lots of different ways. Contact your local clerk and recorder to find out how you can help.

Warner: And I would encourage those most suspicious to be the ones to pick up the phone first.

Crane: Please. That's what we want.

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