GRAND JUNCTION — Charlayne Higginson was waving a recall sign at passing motorists on a windy corner near the Mesa County Clerk and Recorder’s office in Grand Junction a few weeks ago when she noticed something yellow stuck in nearby weeds. It was a completed ballot for the upcoming primary election. Within days, someone else reported finding another ballot blowing across the parking lot in front of the elections office.
Those flyaway ballots were the latest black eye and bone of contention for an office mired in enough controversy to count as a truly strange Mesa County political potboiler. First-term Republican Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters – the official responsible for the integrity of local elections – is the target of a recall effort that began well before ballots began sailing around her parking lot.
After Peters was voted into office in 2018, former clerk’s office employees allege there were vote-counting errors, missed election deadlines and a toxic working environment. There was a mass exodus – 24 of 32 employees – from her office just before and after Peters took office. Other perceived Peters’ sins listed on the official statement of grounds for the recall petition include questionable expenses, improperly followed election procedures, and a costly ending of historic election relationships with two municipalities in Mesa County. Peters stopped the practice of the clerk’s office handling elections for the towns of Fruita and Palisade.
But the incident that ignited the recall was the discovery in March of 574 ballots that had sat overlooked — and uncounted — in a drop-box right outside the main entrance of the elections office. The ballots had been there since the November election.
“I thought ‘Oh, good lord, what’s happening?’” said Amanda Polson, who worked in the clerk’s office for seven years – four of those as director of elections under Peters’ Republican predecessor – and quit prior to Peters taking office. “I was watching the office closely and I started seeing things.”
Polson, a Democrat, is now heading the RecallClerkTina effort. Hundreds of petition passers are attempting, in the midst of a crippling pandemic, to collect 18,000 signatures by Aug. 3. About 12,000 valid signatures from registered voters are required to force a recall election in Mesa County, but the recall proponents aren’t leaving anything to chance.
In the most recent salvos around the recall effort, the recall group filed a formal complaint with the Secretary of State’s office alleging that Peters has violated numerous election laws. Peters has filed a complaint with the same office asking that the overseer appointed by the Colorado Secretary of State and the Mesa County Commissioners to monitor elections be removed for political bias.
Peters, a political neophyte who formerly worked as an airline attendant and a co-owner of a construction company, defends her clerk work and contends the complaints from her detractors are false. She points to last week’s primary election as proof. Mesa County was the first county to turn results in to the Secretary of State’s office.
Peters has gone after her critics tooth and nail on social media and in legal complaints connected to the recall effort. A posting on her Facebook page highlights the bad blood: “The dirty tricksters are trying to tear us down. Don’t let them! Don’t allow the lies to sway you! TP WON the election. Now, the anarchists are making her pay.”
“We knew we would be up against a lot of hatred,” said Higginson, a volunteer with the recall effort and a former employee of the clerk and recorder’s office.
Some of Peters’ detractors outside the recall committee have lobbed back personal attacks. An anti-Peters blogger recently posted Peters’ Match.com dating profile. It lists “no drama” as one of her attributes.
State-selected monitor accused of helping the opposition
On a stifling hot late June day, five women are staffing a recall table set at the officially-mandated distance from the front of the clerk’s office. Children droop in folding chairs and in the open door of a minivan near a banner reading “Your Vote Should Count RecallClerkTina.com.”
Cars honk as they pass by. Some stick thumbs-up from windows. Some jab the air with middle fingers. When drivers pull up to the recall table, masked volunteers hop up with clipboards at the ready.
As Polson keeps track of the action, she stresses that this attempted recall is not motivated by politics or personal animosity. She says she wouldn’t care if Peters were a Democrat. If a Democrat were making the same mistakes, she would still start a recall because her goal is to preserve the integrity of the voting process.
“When you look at the whole of all that is going on, you see a very large problem. It is frightening,” she says as her fellow petition collectors nod their heads.
As the petition backers attempt to play down animosity, Peters lately has ratcheted up her conspiracy theories. After the loose parking-lot ballots were collected and turned in – and made front-page news in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel – Peters alleged that the windborne ballots were a staged ruse by her political enemies to help the recall effort. She asked the local police to investigate. She hasn’t explained a ballot poking out of the top of the drop-box in a photograph obtained on another day by a Daily Sentinel photographer.
Drop-box voters have complained the ballot box was not designed for vehicle drop-offs. The slot is high and angled so that it requires some manipulation from a vehicle. Prior to last week’s primary election, Peters added a sign to the box advising voters to completely insert the ballot and to listen for a very faint paper plop to know if their ballot actually dropped in.
“I don’t like the design. People really struggled to reach that box from their cars,” said Teak Simonton, the former Eagle County clerk and current Eagle County treasurer, who was tapped by the Colorado Secretary of State’s office to observe Mesa County’s election in the wake of all the troubles.
Simonton has been spending time in the Mesa County office evaluating procedures and compliance with the myriad complicated rules that govern an elections office. She was on hand to oversee every phase of voting last week and will continue to watch the office to make sure it is ready for the presidential election in November. If the recall petition is successful, she will step in as the elections official because Peters wouldn’t be able to oversee the recall.
Simonton said she can’t comment on how last week’s election was handled. She will file a report with the Secretary of State after the November election.
“I don’t want to put my thumb on either side of the issue,” Simonton said.
Peters has already accused her of doing just that by dint of being a Democrat and because Simonton printed the recall petitions for the recall committee. Simonton said that is an accepted practice so that elections officials have uniform documents to work with. After Peters complained, Simonton agreed to charge the recall committee for printing the petitions.
Peters still filed a formal complaint two days later to have Simonton removed.
Older volunteers blamed for uncounted ballots
Kevin McCarney, chairman of the Mesa County Republicans, supports Peters’ conspiracy theories when it comes to the loose and forgotten ballots.
“I absolutely think this is all a political hit,” McCarney said. “They (the recall backers) are just mad because someone else won the election.”
Before Peters began blaming “dirty tricksters” for the ballot problems, she had written an email to the Mesa County GOP Committee saying that she took responsibility and had implemented measures to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. She noted that “human error occurred.” Later, in a Daily Sentinel interview, she blamed election volunteers. She claimed she was misquoted, but her comments to the Sentinel were recorded.
McCarney also accused the Sentinel of fanning the flames. He was quoted in the Sentinel saying the forgotten ballot matter was “trivial.” He said that was taken out of context. He also said it was a poor word choice on his part.
The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office didn’t view it as trivial. Besides sending an observer to Mesa County, that office pressured Peters to hire a former clerk’s office employee Patti Inscho as her elections manager. Peters fired Inscho a month later. Inscho said, in the interim, Peters would not allow her to do the job. Inscho described an office in chaos with a clerk who refused to take direction from seasoned elections officials.
“She completely sidelined me. I could not do anything to make improvements I thought were needed,” Inscho said as she worked at her current volunteer job – gathering recall signatures.
“No political strife among us in the office”
While recall backers pass petitions on corners and at farmers markets, Peters is working to present her office in a positive light. In early June, she directed her chief deputy clerk to email all employees asking them to participate in a presentation to highlight how they serve the public. She listed topics they could be asked about, including how their personal and professional lives are better because of working in the clerk and recorder’s office, what improvements they have experienced under Peters tenure and what it is like to work for Peters. They had to notify Peters and the deputy clerk if they didn’t want to participate.
Even that effort has drawn fire.
“I think that is very odd. That puts employees in a bad spot,” said former Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Sheila Reiner, whose term-limited retirement led to Peters’ election. Reiner, a Republican, worked for the office for 18 years, the last eight as the clerk. She is now helping out the recall effort after she reached out to try to help Peters put her office in order but was rebuffed.
Peters was contacted several times for comment but said she was “busier than a one-armed paper-hanger” on election week and did not have time for an interview. A call to her main office number left a reporter on hold for more than 30 minutes.
Peters would only answer questions by email. She wrote that her office is now fully staffed and functioning well.
“We have quite the family here and there is no political strife among us in the office,” she wrote.
Higginson, who found the ballot in the weeds, isn’t buying it. She worked in the motor vehicle division of the clerk’s office for 15 years, but opted to retire after Peters was elected.
“I didn’t like the way she was conducting herself,” Higginson said.
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She and her fellow recall backers say they are trying to avoid personal attacks and stay focused on making sure Mesa County has a legitimate presidential election come November. They are willing to list ways they think Peters has done the right thing. She reopened closed satellite offices for motor vehicle matters. She has hired some competent people. And the drive-up ballot box was a good idea – if it were more functional.
“We are trying to set a tone of civility, Polson said.
Tell that to opinionated citizens.
“What boneheaded moves,” said Navy veteran Mike Konn, as he gestured toward the clerk and recorder’s office before signing the petition with a flourish. As he was leaving, he turned and tossed out a bit of wisdom to the recall backers: “When I was in the Navy,” he said. “I learned you can delegate responsibility, but you can’t delegate accountability.”