DENVER – The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office is prohibiting the use of more than 40 components of Mesa County’s voting system after an initial investigation found the county clerk and recorder’s office allowed a non-employee to take part in a “trusted build” of the system earlier this year and turned off surveillance cameras at the site.
Secretary of State Jena Griswold issued the order prohibiting the use of 41 devices, including computers and scanners, on Thursday, three days after she issued an order to Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters requesting information about what her office called a security breach.
That means that all 41 of those machines will have to be replaced by Mesa County — on the ground, installed and tested by Aug. 30 — or the county will have to do a hand count for this fall's election, Griswold said at a news conference Thursday. She added that it would be up to Mesa County as to whether the equipment will be replaced, but some equipment is required under federal law, which she and Matt Crane, the executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, said they would see if they could get extras of from other counties.
Mesa County would be responsible for the cost of replacing the equipment, and Griswold said she had been in discussions with the county attorney with how the county will proceed. She said the secretary of state's office would be assisting in the process.
Someone gave images of basic input/output system (BIOS) passwords specific to Mesa County's systems, which were filmed during the May trusted build, to right-wing media that ended up online, as the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel first reported and The Bulwark elaborated on earlier this week, which led to the order. Griswold said Thursday that the videos of those passwords were posted “by a known conspiracy theorist" — the man whom some believe to be the man behind QAnon.
“You could change settings, for example. You could take screenshots. You can really pull out information to try to undermine confidence in the voting equipment itself,” Griswold said earlier this week in regard to the passwords for the county.
On Tuesday, the secretary of state’s office staff, along with county officials, conducted an inspection of voting systems and records in Mesa County after Peters did not respond to the order, according to Griswold’s office. The district attorney’s office also initiated a separate criminal investigation into the clerk and recorder’s office.
Peters, meanwhile, appeared at a symposium in South Dakota hosted by Mike Lindell, the pillow salesman who has spread false election conspiracy theories since last year. Peters discussed the order from the secretary of state and said, “I don’t trust them.”
Griswold’s office said Thursday its analysis was ongoing and that it was awaiting more documents required from the order but issued some findings that led to the order prohibiting Mesa County from using the various equipment. She said there was "no indication any other voting system equipment outside of Mesa County is implicated" and that statewide action was not warranted.
The probe found that Mesa County “authorized a non-employee” to attend the May 25 trusted build in question and had also told the secretary of state’s office that the person was indeed an employee. Griswold said there were only seven people in the room that day, including staff from her office, staff from Dominion and staff that were county employees, who were all supposed to have undergone background checks.
Griswold said Thursday that her office believes that person to be a man named Gerald Wood, whom Griswold said had swiped into the room where the trusted build was taking place that day, but who Mesa County confirmed was not an employee. The office also confirmed that the images that leaked online were taken from the day of the trusted build, she said.
It also found that “evidence suggests that the Mesa County Clerk’s office directed Mesa County staff to turn off video surveillance of the voting equipment prior to the May 25, 2021 trusted build.”
The cameras were not turned back on until August, according to Griswold’s office.
And the investigation found chain of custody documents for multiple ballot-marking machines involved in the voting system were not sealed until a day or two after the trusted build — which are yearly updates to the voting equipment done "for as long as we've had voting systems," Griswold said.
All that taken into consideration, according to Griswold’s office, the Department of State could not determine that BIOS settings weren’t accessed after May 25.
“The Department finds that it cannot establish a verifiable chain of custody for any of the voting systems components in Mesa County and cannot establish confidence in the integrity or security of these components,” Griswold’s Thursday order states. “…[T]he Secretary of State has determined it is necessary to take the further action of prohibiting the use of voting systems components in Mesa County.”
Grisold said that Peters had still not responded to the order; the interim county attorney "has been the only person communicating," she said.
“I think this is troubling for the entire state of Colorado to have someone in a trusted position – literally trusted to protect democracy – allow this type of situation to occur. To be very clear, Mesa County clerk and recorder allowed a security breach, and by all evidence at this point, assisted it.”
Mesa County directed questions directly to Peters, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
"I cannot comment on a pending investigation, as it may compromise the integrity of the investigation, including, but not limited to affecting interviews of persons," Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said in an email.
Both Griswold and Crane said they were disappointed by what happened and by what Peters and some other Coloradans have said during Lindell's symposium this week.
"I think it's a shame," Griswold said of Peters. "It's just really horrible for the state of Colorado to have an elected elections official knowingly allowing a breach of security and also spreading disinformation."
Crane, a Republican and former Arapahoe County Clerk, called the security breach a "solo, intentional and selfish act that jeopardized the confidence of elections in Mesa County."
He retorted to those who have hailed Peters and the employee who leaked the passwords as heroes: "To be clear, there is nothing heroic."
Rather, he said, the "true heroes" are Colorado's 63 other county clerks and their teams who uphold the integrity and faith in Colorado's elections. He talked about a discussion he had with Peters in January as she was spreading election misinformation, which she referred to at the Lindell symposium, albeit falsely, Crane said.
"Anything you put out there can be spun by people spreading disinformation," he said. "...The purpose of the call ws to advise her to be smarter about her comments. As elections officials, you have to be that much more careful to not erode the public trust. Standing here today, I wish that was the extent of it. But the damage done to the public trust by her far exceeds what she put on Twitter that day."
Griswold said that people should have faith in Colorado's elections and in Mesa County's moving forward, and that this matter did not affect any election.
"I won't allow Colorado or our election system be used as a tool to undermine confidence and set the road for voter suppression," she said.