Battle For The Ballot Box: How Tina Peters' Allegeded Crimes Changed the Election Security Discussion
RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a transcript of this episode.
Former County Clerk Tina Peters, who oversaw elections in rural Mesa County in western Colorado, made headlines around the country when her election conspiracy theories allegedly led to actions that brought about charges of attempting to influence a public servant, identity theft and several other felonies.
Were her actions those of a rogue public servant, or were they tied to larger national trends? On this episode of RadioEd, Matt chats with Seth Masket, professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, and Charles Ashby, a veteran reporter whose work in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel helped unravel some of the convoluted details surrounding Peters’ criminal case.
Seth Masket is a professor of political science and the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of Learning from Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020 (Cambridge, 2020), The Inevitable Party: Why Attempts to Kill the Party System Fail and How they Weaken Democracy (Oxford, 2016), and No Middle
Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (Michigan, 2009), as well as a co-author of a recent textbook on political parties. He studies political parties, campaigns and elections, and state legislatures. He contributes regularly at FiveThirtyEight, Mischiefs of Faction, and the Denver Post. He is currently working on a book project examining the Republican Party’s interpretations of the 2020 election and its preparations for 2024.
Charles Ashby covers politics for the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in western Colorado. He has nearly 45 years of experience covering politics in Colorado and has written stories for publications in Denver, Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Boulder, Longmont, Durango, Steamboat Springs, Montrose and Sterling, as well as work that has appeared in newspapers in Virginia, Nebraska and Florida.
Charles Ashby's reporting on Tina Peters:
Griswold decertifies Mesa County Election Equipment: https://www.gjsentinel.com/breaking/breaking_news/griswold-decertifies-mesa-county-election-equipment/article_02490f8e-fb8d-11eb-95d4-ebcb4e0b04ef.html
Peters tweets conspiracy theory over election system: https://www.gjsentinel.com/news/western_colorado/peters-tweets-conspiracy-theory-over-election-system/article_3a73d404-4ec5-11eb-9597-1b5e0fdc20da.html
Peters' cost to county: $1.3 million and rising: https://www.gjsentinel.com/news/western_colorado/peters-cost-to-county-1-3-million-and-rising/article_e2349914-f3ef-11ec-9755-cbda39e9db82.html
Arrest warrant issued for Tina Peters: https://www.gjsentinel.com/news/western_colorado/arrest-warrant-issued-for-tina-peters/article_1976d4ee-03b5-11ed-baa3-978fbf3d366e.html
Recommended by Seth Masket:
The most important attorney general and secretary of state races to watch: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/secretary-of-state-elections/
Has your state made it harder to vote: https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/voting-restrictions-by-state/
Election denial in races for election administration positions: https://www.brennancenter.org/series/election-denial-races-election-administration-positions
Security resources for election officials: https://www.eac.gov/election-officials/election-official-security
Emma Atkinson (00:05):
You're listening to RadioEd...
Matt Meyer (00:07):
The University of Denver podcast...
Emma Atkinson (00:09):
We're your hosts, Emma Atkinson...
Matt Meyer (00:11):
and Matt Meyer...
The curious case of Tina Peters, county clerk in Mesa County in western Colorado, starts in earnest on January 3, 2021, when she used her private Twitter account to fire back at a US Senator.
Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania shared a series of tweets in which he chastised colleagues who wanted to challenge the electoral college certification of the 2020 presidential election results.
I'm reading the tweet verbatim, so please excuse the typos. Peters responded with the following, “Shame on you. As one that administers elections in my county, you apparently have no idea how it is possible to: one, tabulate more than once ballots favoring a candidate, two, change algorithm in a voting machine (see Eric Coomer from Dominion Facebook rants). You are dirty or ignorant.”
On this episode of Radio Ed, we're focusing on election integrity and how the security of Vote County equipment shifted from civic concern to political platform.
We'll chat with Seth Masket, the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, and Charles Ashby, a Veterans State House and political reporter for 45 years, who's on the ground reporting in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, helps shine a light on the controversy.
But first, let's dive into more of the background on the Peters case. It's complicated and full of details, so bear with me. In her tweet, Peters refers to Eric Coomer, formerly an executive with the Denver based Dominion Voting Systems, one of the country's largest providers of electronic voting equipment. If you vote on election day and input your choices into a tablet, there's a good chance Dominion made the equipment and the software that runs on it. The ranch she references her Facebook posts allegedly made by Coomer that were critical of former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Coomer has since been dismissed by Dominion, but he and other Dominion executives, the Office of Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, and even former U.S. Attorney General William Barr, have all claimed there is no widespread election fraud in the country.
On May 23, 2021, Peters and a small team of people entered into a secure area of the Mesa County Elections Division, late on a Sunday night, to make copies of computer hard drives. Two nights later, she entered the security a once again after a software update to the election equipment. By August 9, the Colorado Secretary of State's office announced an investigation in the Mesa County Clerk and recorder's office. The next day, Mesa County District Attorney, Republican Dan Rubenstein, executed a search warrant on the office.
While this was happening, Peters appeared in South Dakota at a symposium hosted by Mike Lindell, prominent election conspiracy theorist, known largely for his company MyPillow. She told the audience there that, “I did this for no personal gain. As a matter of fact, my job looks like it's on the line, but you know what? The people of Mesa County elected me, not the Secretary of State.” On August 12, Griswold and her office de-certified Mesa County's election equipment, a move that could cost the relatively rural county hundreds of thousands of dollars.
At this point, Peters was nowhere to be found. Griswold named Mesa County Treasurer, Sheila Reiner, who formerly held the position of county clerk to oversee the office while Peters is under investigation. Wayne Williams, former Colorado Secretary of State, would oversee the elections that fall. Both Williams and Reiner are Republicans.
After two weeks in hiding, Peters resurfaced and once again appeared with Lindell in South Dakota to say she wanted to protect Mesa County's elections. On August 24th, county commissioners urged Peters to return home. On the same day, those commissioners signed a contract with the minion voting systems to replace the de-certified election equipment, a move that was made in part to protect the county from a defamation lawsuit. Peters was absent from Grand Junction for more than a month. She reappeared on September 16th during a rally to local church. During the same month, Peters' deputy clerk, Belinda Nisley, was charged with felony burglary and misdemeanor cybercrimes.
By November, Sandra Brown, an Elections Manager, was fired by Mesa County officials, and federal agents executed a search warrant at the election’s office. At the start of 2022, Mesa County Commissioners moved to bar Peters for managing future elections. Peters wasn't about to go quietly, however, and on Valentine's Day, she announced her bid for Colorado's Secretary of State.
She lost the June primary and claimed election fraud, demanding a recount. The state of Colorado spent a quarter of a million dollars to once again confirm Pam Anderson, Republican clerk in Jefferson County, who repeatedly pushed back against selection fraud conspiracies, had won. The tallies changed by only 13 votes, but the Tina Peter's story is only the beginning.
We bring in Charles Ashby to discuss his reporting on Peters and the controversy in Mesa County.
Charles Ashby (04:19):
It started after the 2020 presidential election. Just as many people across the country were questioning the outcome of that. They started to- a number of people here were asking about the same question, and whether or not the Mesa County election was done fair, despite the fact that Trump won by – I think – 62 or 63% of the vote. Many of them went to Tina Peters and asked her to- and some kind of commissioners and asked them to look into it. And at the time, Tina was saying, “No, it was a free and fair election. It was done properly, so there was no issue.” And then slowly over time, she started to listen to different people from what we've been able to find out. Apparently convinced her that something was wrong. Something was amiss with the Dominion voting machines that we use here in the county.
And so, then she launched into this parent temp to make copies of the hard drives, so that she could have experts look at what was going on. From that, they came up with a- some so-called reports, all of which have been debunked.
I mean, for example, their first report said that when they upgraded the system in May of 2021, that they killed 29,000 files. And so, in doing so, what she doesn't say is that her own election people had already, as instructed by the Secretary of State's office, as every county in the state was, before they did the same upgrade of that computer system, which is a routine thing they do every two years to back up all of their election files. They had done that, but Peter's claimed that all the election files were deleted and therefore there was a problem. And that's not, that's not how computers work.
Whenever you upgrade a program, then old files are killed and new files are put in. Third report I know, was investigated by the district attorney's office, and it claimed that the report said it wasn't anybody who worked there, so it had to have been somebody who got into the system, either remotely or physically, and changed these things.
The DA's investigators however, found out that, in fact, it was one of the election officials, in fact, one who's now on her indictment, and it wasn't anything illegal that she had done. They were having problems with the system, verifying some ballots, and so she kind of took the nuclear option and rebooted a whole batch of them and started again.
So, those ballots were counted properly, but it made it appear to somebody who doesn't know how this thing works, that some ballots were altered, or some ballots were rejected, and that's not in fact the case. Anyway, so it's just gotten snowballed and now has got three defendants that are being charged.
Tina Peters, of course, her trial is set for March. She's facing tampering with election equipment charges. She's facing criminal impersonation, identity theft charges, and malfeasance of office. Her deputy has been charged as well, Belinda Knisely. She has since entered into a plea deal, where she's testifying against Tina Peters, a couple of misdemeanors, and a third election worker, an election manager who has since been fired, has also been charged with a couple of felonies related to the whole thing. So, at this point, we're waiting for the courts to take over and we won't see anything of substance until next spring.
Matt Meyer (07:46):
So, she's looking at seven felonies, and then I saw that it was $1.3 million dollars of taxpayer funds. That's been kind of one of the big takeaways from this outside of the whole political circus. This is a $1.3 million dollar bill in a county that every dollar matters.
Charles Ashby (08:00):
Yes, exactly. And then, when I wrote that story about the cost, that was the cost at that point, it's going up. It's probably closer to 2 million now, and it'll be even higher if you add in all the court costs because they haven't even- that doesn't even count, you know, the DA's cost and having to go to court with these people, the lawyer's times, the investigator's times. We don't really have a full accounting of it. We may never get a full accounting of it. So, I've heard as much as 2 million at this point.
Matt Meyer (08:30):
If you were listening carefully to the charges leveled against Peters, identity theft might have jumped out. How does the county clerk in hot water over an alleged election security breach end up charged with felony identity theft? That's where the story gets weird.
There are two names to know. One you may have heard before, and one you almost certainly haven't. Gerald Wood, a private sector software engineer from nearby Fruita, Colorado, was hired by Peters for freelance work. Wood specializes in data security, and it seemed like a smart fit. But before the 56-year-old could perform any work, Peters said the office wanted to keep his county ID badge he was issued as a contractor.
Prosecutors alleged that Peters gave Wood's ID to Conan Hayes, a former professional surfer and founder of the clothing and lifestyle brand RVCA, who entered into the secure area of the Mesa County's elections office and made copies of the hard drives. Those voting records ended up leaked on the internet to followers of QAnon, a prominent election conspiracy group, and is what kicked off the investigation by the Colorado Secretary of State's office.
The involvement of Hayes and the lack of involvement by Wood came out during the investigation only after Wood's home was searched. The political blow back in Colorado surfaced during Peters’ Secretary of State run, where fellow denier, Michael O'Donnell siphoned off some of the vote that might have gone to Peters. Charles Ashby can explain.
Charles Ashby (09:35):
The Election denial group has split in half because some of them consider Gerald Wood a friend and are mad at Tina Peters for throwing him under the bus and, you know, having his house raided by police and, you know, which happened early on. And so, they're split in half.
Many of them still believe that there was something amiss with the election, but they're not necessarily big fans of Tina Peters, which is why that third guy, Michael O'Donnell, I think it was, who was running for the Secretary of State, the GOP nomination for Secretary of State did so well – because a lot of the Tina Peters pourers went over to him. So, they're still there, but they're in two camps now.
Matt Meyer (10:18):
You see, on kind of the broader political landscape, you see these politicians talking about election denying from Trump's camp, right? They're saying Trump had the election stolen from him, but you're seeing somebody like Lauren Boebert starting to distance herself from Tina Peters. Do you think Tina Peters' specific case is kind of starting to break away from the larger political election denier kind of campaign?
Charles Ashby (10:44):
No. No, not really. They're all squarely in the same camp, and it really is all about Trump, and that's the election. Because you have to understand that Lauren Boebert won in that same year, so she can't very well say, you know, there was a problem because then that might call into question her own election.
We have two county commissioners here in Mesa County who won in that same year, and they've even said this in open meetings, it's like, “Well, if you're saying that there's something wrong with this election equipment, then you're questioning whether I won this race or whether Lauren Boebert won the race.”
You know, it's all about Trump. It's all about Trump, and as far as Boebert goes, I mean, she is quite smartly, I think, stayed out of this probably for that reason. Although she is definitely one who believes that the election was stolen from Trump, as we saw with her actions on January 6th last year.
Matt Meyer (11:40):
With the national election denier movement centered squarely around former President Donald Trump, how does the story of Tina Peters affect the broader political landscape? In her bid for Secretary of State, Peters was targeting a position that has come under increased scrutiny since the 2020 election. For an explanation, we bring in Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, who specializes in political parties, politics, partisanship, polarization, and elections.
Seth Masket (12:04):
Her bid to actually become Colorado Secretary of State didn't go very far. It was somewhat surprising that it didn't catch more fire because there are races like that across the country that actually are doing fairly well, but she did not attract a lot of Republican support. She was defeated in the primary. Of course, she complained that there was fraud about that election, but this caught attention because a lot of people are concerned across the country right now about ongoing attempts to either try to overturn the last presidential election or to overturn future ones. And in many states, the Secretary of State's office would be just the key person to do that. You know, they're the ones who regulate elections, they're the ones who are, you know, sort of like the highest-ranking official overseeing, you know, how elections are run.
In the follow up to the 2020 election. Donald Trump was putting pressure on secretaries of state in several very close races, including Georgia, to actually, you know, change the outcome of the election to say that Trump had gotten more votes than he actually did. So, they're kind of the linchpin to this. And if there's a bunch of secretaries of state in different states that come in and are committed to overturning elections in the favor of Donald Trump or someone else, you know, that's really a very significant threat to American democracy.
Matt Meyer (13:16):
When did this transition from Donald Trump trying to win an election to being part of a broader political platform?
Seth Masket (13:23):
That occurred pretty quickly in the wake of the 2020 election. Now, he had been saying all throughout 2020 that he thought that there would be some sort of election fraud, that basically there was no way he could legitimately lose the election, and if he did lose, it would only be because Democrats somehow cheated. So, you know, when he came up short of votes on election day, he started claiming that he truly had won the election and then casting doubts on every state where it was close, where it was still being counted. And initially, you know, it was a familiar pattern.
We saw a lot of Republican office holders initially distancing themselves from him saying, “Let's just sit back and wait until the votes are counted.” But then a number of them essentially started doing what he wanted and, you know, mimicking his rhetoric about the election, claiming there were all sorts of fraudulent things going on all across the country. And that sort of became kind of the rallying cry for supporters of Donald Trump. It's part of what led to the riots on January 6th, and it's a big part of what motivates his supporters now.
Matt Meyer (14:25):
In 2022, is it still about Donald Trump – is election security still at Donald Trump-centric issue?
Seth Masket (14:32):
I mean, he's important to it, but he's not the only feature of it. There are quite a few people who clearly believe this are working hard to have more pliable election systems that they can more easily manipulate, regardless of whether Donald Trump is on a future ballot or not. There's clearly some work going on in a number of states right now for this year's elections where a number of, you know, Republican activists are prepared to claim fraud if their candidate loses.
We're seeing some efforts on this in Pennsylvania and some other close states, and I'd say Donald Trump is probably the most prominent and outspoken advocate of these views, but he's not the only one.
Matt Meyer (15:10):
In terms of the future of these platforms, do you feel like this is going to be an ongoing issue into 2024 and then 2028 and beyond, or is this something that that's a relatively smaller storm that's centered more around the 2020 election?
Seth Masket (15:25):
I mean, it's going to remain a significant issue for some time. One of the things that I've noticed in some books I've been having my students read about previous elections, there have been claims about election fraud and elections prior to 2016. Of course, there were, you know, studies of conservatives in upstate Wisconsin that, you know, they were claiming there was fraud against Mitt Romney in 2012. There's been this sort of set of beliefs out there, and it's been sort of like this populous line of argument that the only way they lose is because of electoral fraud in the cities. That's been going on a long time. Generally, it doesn't get echoed by prominent people and major, you know, presidential candidates don't promote those theories. Major parties don't promote those theories. So, 2020 was a big pivot on that front. If Donald Trump chooses not to run for office again, you know, it'll still be a prominent issue, but it will probably fade somewhat with time and, you know, particularly if Republican candidates feel that they can run for office without needing to seek his favor in a primary.
Because you know, even if he's not running, he's still a fairly important person in Republican primaries. As his presence fades, you know, so might this issue, but it'll probably take a while. And because this has become, you know, one of the central belief systems of a lot of Republican organizations around the country. I mean, this is a party that nationally never actually wrote a platform in 2020. And so, you know, other than simply, you know, putting conservative justices on the court and enacting tax cuts, there isn't that long of a platform after that, and changing how elections are run is pretty high up there.
Matt Meyer (17:04):
A lot has come out about these various county clerks and these various state officials, kind of what they've been doing to maintain election integrity and how these systems have been placed for a long time for free and fair democratic elections. Has there been any changes to that process, or has it kind of been business as usual at like a city and a state government level?
Seth Masket (17:23):
In most places we haven't really seen major changes. There's been a few individual politicians who may have changed their views on things, but we really haven't seen major changes at the county or state level. Colorado's election system is still very much what it has been, you know, which is really considered probably the gold standard for the country right now, in terms of election security and access and, you know, just people can have real confidence in the vote.
We have seen in some states attempts to roll back access: a number of states were experimenting in 2020 with different ways that voters could access the ballot during the pandemic, expanding early voting, expanding mail-in voting. Few states, particularly in the South, have rolled that back a bit, and are trying to, you know, essentially make it a little harder to vote and, you know, add some barriers back. But for the most part, we haven't seen major changes in how, you know, whether a state would actually overturn elections in one of the candidates favors.
Matt Meyer (18:22):
But like the functional like day to day of election running and counting votes, none of that has changed in the intervening years?
Seth Masket (18:29):
No, that's still pretty stable.
Matt Meyer (18:32):
In terms of educating oneself on kind of how these elections work, and if somebody wants to learn, where is a place they can go to kind of learn about the election process and learn about the democratic process that maybe is free from some of this noise that's been surrounding the issue lately?
Seth Masket (18:47):
There's actually been a number of very good news articles written recently about election deniers, about the roles that Secretaries of State play. I've honestly seen some of these in Washington Post, New York Times, 538 – that website put together a very good compendium of where election deniers are running, what offices they're running for. So, that's good on that level. You know, one of the challenging things is that, you know, every state has a somewhat different election system, and if you want to understand what the Secretary of State's job is and how they do it, that's like 50 different things.
Matt Meyer (19:22):
If you're interested in reading more about Tina Peters, links to Charles Ashby's reporting in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel are available in the show notes. If you'd like to learn more about voter fraud, election deniers, and other trending topics, some works recommended by Seth Masket are also featured in the show notes. November 8th is Election Day, and it's an important civic duty. If you haven't already, take time to educate yourself on the ballot issues relevant to your area and vote, even during midterm elections. With that, I'll leave you with Seth Masket’s final thoughts on election fraud and corruption in the United States.
Seth Masket (19:49):
One of the things about the United States is that we actually have, for all the problems that our democracy has, we have a fairly non-corrupt election system. Corruption is a very serious problem in a lot of places, and it's possible in some places for people to bribe election officials and to change election results. That has not been a serious problem in this country's history. And we don't have a system where election fraud is that common or where people are impersonating voters and changing votes. That's just not a thing here.
We do have other concerns. People do have difficulty accessing the ballot even when they're legally supposed to be allowed to. A lot of people have been disenfranchised, either through laws or sometimes accidentally, or sometimes through just, you know, somewhat perniciously by, you know, elected officials. But actual ballot fraud is not really a thing here. And, you know, people can be confident that if they cast a ballot, it will be counted the way they voted.
Matt Meyer (20:50):
Thanks to Seth Masket and Charles Ashby for their contributions to this episode. For more information, check out our show notes at du.edu/radioed. Tamara Chapman is our managing editor, and Débora Rocha is our production assistant. James Swearingen arranged our theme. I'm Matt Meyer, and this is RadioEd.