Trump eligibility case has brought new pressures and threats to Colorado’s election workers

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Mesa County Elections Clerk and Recorder’s office in Grand Junction, Colorado, Jan 21, 2022.

As the U.S. Supreme prepares to consider the Colorado case that could disqualify former President Trump from holding office again, the state’s elections officials are watching especially closely.

“It does raise our profile — not in a good way, for bad things to happen,” said Chaffee County Clerk Lori Mitchell, a Democrat. “I think the threat environment is very real and we take it very seriously.”

The Supreme Court hears oral arguments Thursday over whether Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, the so-called Insurrection Clause, applies to Trump. In December 2023, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled it does, disqualifying him from the state’s upcoming GOP primary. A decision from the nation’s highest court will most likely either put him back on the ballot in Colorado or take the unprecedented step of barring him from running nationwide.

Speaking to CPR News at the clerk’s winter gathering in January, Mitchell wasn’t willing to delve too much into her thoughts on the case, noting that clerks will move forward with whatever the Justices decide.

Counties have already printed their ballots for the March 5 presidential primary, with Trump’s name on them. What’s in doubt right now, is whether votes for him will ultimately be counted. 

“It's kind of just a little bit above us,” Mitchell said, adding that the situation does create more pressure. “But I think that's making us really focus and be better, and we want the public to know that we're going to be ready, and they're going to be able to vote free and fairly.”

The Supreme Court case is Colorado’s biggest election controversy, but not its first

Colorado has become the tip of the spear for a national effort to use the Constitution to keep the Republican frontrunner off the presidential ballot. Groups opposed to Trump have filed similar challenges to his eligibility in numerous states, only to see nearly all of them fail on various grounds. 

Colorado is the only state to hold a full evidentiary hearing on the issue and to send it up the courts to the point where it arrived on the Supreme Court’s doorstep.

But being the test case has put the state’s officials in a uniquely precarious situation. In the days after the ruling, the state’s Supreme Court justices faced numerous threats. And now local election officials are feeling the strain too.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold gives a victory speech during an election night party held by the Colorado Democratic Party. Nov. 8, 2022.

“As soon as we can get clarity to that and move past that, then I think we'll be in a much better space,” said Matt Crane, the head of the Colorado Clerks Association, which isn’t taking a position on the case. He said election administrators are on high alert should the situation lead to threats. The clerks stepped up security for their recent conference in Colorado Springs.

“Colorado is towards the top of the food chain in terms of concerns over political violence and threats to election officials,” said Crane. “I think that lawsuit has helped drive a lot of that.” 

Crane, who is also a former Republican county clerk, said this case is just the latest way in which Colorado has found itself a target of anger and distrust from some of Trump’s supporters who falsely believe the 2020 election was stolen.

“A lot of the people who lie about elections, and grift about those lies, are centered here in Colorado,” he observed. “A lot of the Dominion lie started here.”

A Colorado-based podcaster and rightwing activist helped originate the widespread conspiracy theory that Dominion Voting Systems, which is headquartered in Denver, colluded to flip the election for President Joe Biden.

Additionally, the U.S. Election Integrity Plan, a grassroots organization that seeks to uncover fraud in the 2020 election, is headquartered in Colorado Springs. In Mesa County, former clerk Tina Peters is scheduled to go on trial this summer for allegedly breaching the security of the county’s election equipment on a hunt for evidence of fraud.

However, even though Crane said he thinks Trump’s actions and false claims around the 2020 election were reprehensible, he doesn’t support removing the former president from the state’s primary ballot. 

“He hasn't been convicted and I'm certainly not a lawyer or a legal scholar in that regard, but he hasn't been charged with anything” that meets the definition of insurrection, said Crane. “I think there has to be some kind of due process that's involved.” 

A federal grand jury indicted Trump in August 2023 on four charges stemming from his efforts to stay in power, including conspiracy against the rights of citizens and obstruction of an official proceeding. This week, an appeals court rejected Trump’s claim of broad presidential immunity in that case.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Fremont County Clerk and Recorder Justin Grantham sits in his Cañon City office. Oct. 27, 2021.

Colorado election officials have mixed opinions on what the Supreme Court should do. Republican Fremont County Clerk Justin Grantham believes it would be best for the country to keep Trump on the ballot and let voters decide. 

“It's their election, it's their race. We’re a government by the people, so the people, if they want Trump on the ballot, then put 'em on the ballot,” said Grantham. 

Grantham said numerous Republicans in his very conservative part of the state have approached him to reiterate that their vote for Trump “better count.” 

He said they mistakenly believe that as clerk he’s personally responsible for the names that appear on the ballot. “And that's absolutely not the case,” Grantham said.

Logan County Clerk Pam Bacon, also a Republican, hasn’t fielded too many questions about the case so far, but “a few had some concerns.” 

She is worried that with the intense media coverage the case is receiving, both locally and nationally, the situation could impact voter turnout for the upcoming election, with Republicans and Unaffiliated voters not turning in their ballots if they believe their vote won’t count. 

Ultimately, with the spotlight on Colorado elections, Bacon believes those overseeing the vote are prepared to redouble their efforts to ensure the election goes smoothly.

“We try to be as transparent as possible with giving our citizens the information and the tools that they need to feel comfortable to cast their ballot,” she said.

While a lot of clerks understandably don’t want to be front and center with their personal opinions on the Trump ballot case, the state’s top election official, Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold, has taken an active role in the case.

“I do think the Colorado Supreme Court got it right. Donald Trump engaged in insurrection,” said Griswold.  

She filed a brief with the court arguing that Trump was rightly disqualified — and that the lower court judge erred when she found that Section 3 doesn’t clearly apply to the presidency. She will be seated in the courtroom for oral arguments Thursday.

“I fundamentally do not believe there should be loopholes in the Constitution putting the president above the law,” said Griswold. She added that allowing Trump to be on the ballot doesn’t set a good precedent.

“Donald Trump is trying to argue that he didn't engage in insurrection, but that even if he did, he doesn't face consequence, and we're seeing that not only in the 14th amendment case but in a lot of cases he's facing … That's a dangerous person to be president,” said Griswold

Regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s hearing, election officials hope the Supreme Court acts quickly; Colorado voters start to receive their primary ballots next week.