Colorado Democrats appear to crack down on insider election threats and misinformation: NPR

A ballot paper outside the Mesa County clerk and recorder offices in Grand Junction, Colo., On August 26, 2021.

Hart Van Denburg / CPR News

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Hart Van Denburg / CPR News

A ballot paper outside the Mesa County clerk and recorder offices in Grand Junction, Colo., On August 26, 2021.

Hart Van Denburg / CPR News

Eight months after a Colorado clerk allegedly compromised his county’s election machines while searching for evidence of fraud in the 2020 election, Democratic lawmakers in the state want to make it illegal for voters to do much of what she does. is accused of.

A new bill in Colorado will add more training requirements for election staff and officials, prevent counties from copying voting machine hard drives without a state permit, mandate full-time video surveillance of equipment, and increase penalties for security breaches.

The legislation will also prohibit anyone who oversees elections from knowingly or recklessly making false statements about the process.

Attempts to prevent insider threats and misinformation from further eroding public confidence in elections have led to concerns about potential violations of the First Amendment and some to question the motives behind the entire effort.

“I do not think it’s too much to demand to say, ‘If you run our election, you can not lie about our election,'” said Democratic State Senate President Steve Fenberg, who is the main sponsor of the bill.

While the measure had been underway for some time, it was officially introduced earlier this month, just two days after Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters was charged with violating the safety of her county’s voting equipment.

With the words of the grand jury indictment, allegedly Peters and her deputy Belinda Knisley “devised and executed a misleading plan” to give an unauthorized person access to the county’s voting machine hard drives and to sit on a software update. Pictures of passwords and copies of data were later leaked online by election conspiracy theorists.

Peters has called the accusations “politically motivated accusations” from the Democrats.

Clerks support increased training, safety requirements

The comprehensive legislation will require counties to store all voting equipment in a secure area accessible only with key cards and under constant video surveillance year-round. It would also prohibit anyone, even election office staff, from entering that area alone. Currently, cameras only need to be turned on for a certain number of days around each selection, and only on certain pieces of selection equipment.

The proposal also aims to speed up the legal process when a potential security breach occurs. It would make it a crime to tamper with voice equipment or publish information such as passwords and would add whistleblower protection to employees who reveal bad behavior.

“It’s important for coloradans to hear … that we will not stand for this kind of thing. Insider threats have no place in our choices,” said Matt Crane, leader of the Colorado County Clerks Association and a former Republican secretary of state. .

Clerks from both parties overwhelmingly support the legislation, according to Crane. He noted that it would extend the training and certification requirements for election staff, officials and certain staff in the Foreign Minister’s office.

“I think what we saw in Mesa County was a low-information clerk, which made her susceptible to grifters and bad actors,” Crane said. Peters had no experience with election administration until he was elected attorney in 2018.

But despite broad support in the election world, it passed its first legislative hearing last week in a party vote.

“Seeing a bill like this being run right away in response to what happened in Mesa County is worrying,” the Republican rep said. Matt Soper, who represents most of the county in the house. “Frankly [it] makes me angry because I do not think we should write legislation for only one particular element that has arisen out in society, knowing that the law that is right now in the books has played out. “

Soper said he is open to voting in favor of the bill if it is amended to address some of his concerns. But he also noted that it is difficult for Republicans to embrace a proposal when Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold is in favor of it.

“She’s made the office incredibly party-political, and it didn’t have to be that way,” he said. “It makes the policy around this very difficult to vote for, although there are many things that Republicans and Democrats can agree on here, if you read the bill through.”

Griswold is running for re-election, and her fundraising emails have routinely highlighted her investigation of Peters, who also recently participated in the race. She has also developed a national profile as a critic of Republican-led voting policies.

The Colorado GOP is already organizing itself against the law. At the same time, party leaders have asked Peters to suspend her campaign as foreign minister in the wake of the criminal charges.

Prohibition of misinformation gives rise to constitutional concerns

What appears to be the most controversial element of the bill is a section that will prohibit those who oversee elections from deliberately or ruthlessly spreading misinformation or misinformation about elections.

Peters has long maintained that she was within her authority to investigate what she came to believe was voter fraud in the 2020 election – doubts that she said started by simply trying to answer questions many of her voters had.

“They just kept bringing it to me and bringing it to me,” Peters told CPR last November. “I get emails and people who want to meet with me. I tried to defend that we were, we had clean and fair choices.”

Peters said she could no longer defend the system. “I can not see what I have seen, and it is disturbing to me.”

Peters has also participated in events and broadcasts that host prominent suppliers of false claims about the 2020 election, including Steve Bannon and Mike Lindell.

But for a prominent First Amendment lawyer, this aspect of the bill is problematic, no matter what the motives behind it.

Steve Zansberg leads the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. He also provides legal representation to members of the Colorado Broadcasters Association, including CPR. He said he wondered who should decide whether a statement was deliberately or ruthlessly false.

“It raises serious constitutional issues because of the ambiguity in how it could be enforced,” Zansberg said. He added that it is “incredibly disturbing” for the state to potentially use the things someone says as a condition and qualification to oversee elections.

He said that if lawmakers pass this provision, it should require a high standard of evidence and a clear process to determine if anyone has actually broken the law.

For followers, though, the idea is just common sense. Senator Fenberg told a Senate committee that he is fully aware that false information about election fraud will continue to spread on social media, talk radio and other platforms.

He said his bill does not try to limit that kind of speech.

“That’s why, in many ways, our democracy is so amazing and frustrating and messy. But for the people who run the election, there should be some basic standards,” he said.

As the effects of 2020 continue, Democrats are moving to pass new laws

This measure is part of a package of voting laws that Democrats have introduced this session, which they say is necessary to respond to baseless allegations surrounding the 2020 election. These include legislation banning open-fire firearms within 100 feet of polling stations , and a bill that would increase penalties for threatening and harassing election workers.

But Secretary Griswold said Colorado is the first state she knows of that proposes this action against insider threats. She said she recently briefed other Secretary of State on the bill and hopes states across the country will follow in Colorado’s footsteps.

“I believe we will see further insider attacks, as a way to destabilize US elections and pressure disinformation. So every state should be ready for this evolving threat,” she said.

County secretaries say public scrutiny, and in some cases outright distrust, has increased their workload and the urgency they feel to ensure the public has a better understanding of how elections work.

Fremont County Clerk Justin Grantham, a Republican, said combating disinformation in his conservative part of the state is more important than ever right now.

“It’s like, come to the trusted source, come and talk to the person who is actually doing the job and not someone who wants to research the internet,” Grantham said. “And if you’re not part of the process, you tend not to see the checks and balances you have in place at elections.”

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