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Colorado voters cast their primary election ballots in downtown Denver on June 30, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s county clerks are pushing for a host of changes to the state’s election system in an effort to quash conspiracy theories stemming from the 2020 election, including improvements to ballot-signature verification and making images of ballots available to the public.

The Colorado County Clerks Association pitched the recommendations Tuesday to the Bipartisan Election Advisory Commission, a panel of county clerks, state election officials and interest groups. The 23-member commission, which advises the Secretary of State’s Office, received the proposals on Tuesday at the end of its meeting. Much of the meeting centered on persistent, false allegations of fraud in the presidential contest.

Just two weeks ago, Secretary of State Jena Griswold implemented emergency rules preventing unauthorized third-party examination of election equipment. Those rules will be incorporated into a larger package of proposed permanent election rules recommended Wednesday.

The recommendations and new rule come as some Colorado counties continue to receive demands from the public and advocacy groups for outside audits of the 2020 election, according to documents obtained by The Colorado Sun through an open-records request. 

“We get a lot of phone calls about the election,” said state Rep. Janice Rich, a Grand Junction Republican and former Mesa County Clerk who sits on the advisory commission. “A lot of it may be based on what they heard at the national level. It kind of comes back to the legislators on why we’re not doing anything in terms of allowing the audits. I’m just trying to figure out a way to put people’s minds at ease.”

Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, said his group’s recommendations would build on a “model that is one of the best, if not the best, in the country.”

Clerks want more transparency

Crane said Weld, Pueblo, El Paso and Broomfield counties have already made ballot images available to the public free of charge. The ballots contain no identifying voter information. 

But other counties wanted to charge more than $100,000 for the images, which are being requested by those who doubt the 2020 election results.

“To go through 350,000 ballots doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time,” Crane said. 

Crane said county clerks also would like to see a signature-verification audit system implemented to ensure election judges are properly and consistently validating signatures on mail-in ballots. There’s currently no formal audit process for signatures in state law or rules. Clerks also recommended a similar audit process to verify voter registration rolls. The state already conducts a post-election audit of ballots to confirm the results.

Those new efforts will cost money, Crane said, including redacting personal information that might be written on paper ballots. In a memo to the commission, he said the state should increase funding to county elections offices. Some clerks offices received grants from nonprofits to pay for part of the 2020 election.

Crane asked the commission to consider working on the ideas in coming months.

Audit requests fueled by Arizona, online rumors

The Sun sent open records inquiries to all 64 county clerks in Colorado asking to review requests for audits or offers for audits of the 2020 election result. Eight have yet to respond and 42 said they had no such requests.

Only one county, El Paso, reported receiving an offer for a forensic review of election equipment from the American Foundation for Civil Liberties and Freedom. The director of that conservative group told The Sun it sent such offers to 1,000 counties, including 10 in Colorado. 

Many counties received messages containing false allegations about problems with voting machines, according to The Sun’s records request. There were also a number of demands for audits.

Here are some examples: 

A Colorado Springs man wrote to elections officials in Arapahoe and Douglas counties asking for audits “like (what) is being done in Maricopa County, Arizona.” 

That review of ballots, ordered by the Republican-controlled Arizona state Senate, is being done by an outside consultant with no prior election experience. It’s being funded in part by dark-money nonprofits — groups that don’t have to disclose their donors. Maricopa County is buying new voting equipment because of concerns that the existing machines may have been tampered with by the third-party auditors.

One person sent three emails in May and June to Broomfield election officials with the same message: “We the people demand paper ballots, manually counted, absentee mail-in by request only, starting with the Recall Special Election.” 

There is no recall election underway in Broomfield, and the state already uses paper ballots. Switching to manual vote-counting, meanwhile, would require a change in state law.

Voters cast their ballots at downtown Denver’s Bannock Street polling location on Election Day, Nov. 5, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

One woman wrote to Arapahoe County officials in January: “The forensic computer report convinced me that our Dominion vote counting machines were corrupted by a foreign source. Apparently, by using cyber warfare, these machines gave the Biden-Trump election weighted votes evidenced by the fractional number of votes received.”

Such allegations have been discredited, and Dominion Voting Systems is suing several people and media organizations who made the false claims.

Adams County received several requests for ballot images, including from the chairwoman of the county’s Republican Party. While the county didn’t place the images online as El Paso and Pueblo counties did, it did provided them to those who provided new, unopened digital storage devices, like a thumb drive.

No evidence of election fraud

While El Paso County didn’t accept the offer to conduct an exam of its election equipment, it did conduct an audit of its 2020 election results. The review was conducted by a vendor certified by Dominion Voting Systems, the company El Paso County uses for its voting equipment. 

Crane said during Tuesday’s commission meeting that the result of the El Paso County audit was a 0.0006% discrepancy. A hand recount of votes in Elbert County, meanwhile, resulted in a three-vote difference, he said. 

Former President Donald Trump won Elbert County with 74% of the vote and El Paso County with 54%.

Judd Choate, director of elections for the Secretary of State’s office, said a recount of more than 700,000 votes in several counties to determine the outcome of the 18th Judicial District’s district attorney’s contest revealed a six-vote difference from the initial result.

“We had really good evidence to support the outcome of this last election,” Choate said.

Chris Murray, an attorney who represents the Colorado Republican Party on the commission, said his initial reaction to the clerks’ recommendations is positive. He said the continued pressure on elections officials is troubling.

“The problem becomes: ‘I want you to do an audit, but I don’t even trust you to do the audit I want you to do,’” he told The Sun.

Murray said elections officials need to take “the narrative back from a lot of folks who just don’t understand election processes that well.”

“They’re using the public’s lack of knowledge to attack one of the few things that we all still have in common,” Murray said of the continued spread of disinformation.

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...