Lawmakers and lobbyists are seen at the Capitol on Jan. 12, 2022 in Denver at the start of Colorado’s General Assembly’s 2022 session. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

People who tamper with voting equipment or publish confidential voting system information in Colorado could face felony charges punishable by up to three years in prison under a measure introduced Friday by Colorado Democrats and backed by state and local election officials. 

Senate Bill 153 would also bar those convicted of certain offenses, including attempting to overthrow the government, from serving as an election official.

The legislation is a pointed response to the controversies surrounding Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, who last week was indicted on 10 charges related to a security breach of her county’s election system. 

Peters, a Republican who has cast baseless doubt on the results of the 2020 presidential election, is alleged to have brought an unauthorized person to a sensitive Dominion Voting Systems election software update in May 2021, after which photographs of passwords taken during the update were posted online.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and local and state authorities are investigating Peters, who also faces probes related to alleged ethics and campaign finance violations centered on flights and lodging she accepted from MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, one of the nation’s most vocal election conspiracy theorists.

“I don’t think we were thinking about insider threats before Mesa,” Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold said Monday at a news conference unveiling the legislation. “People are running to oversee elections across this nation who are embracing conspiracy theories.” 

Peters is — over the objection of members of her own party — running to replace Griswold as the state’s top election official. 

The bill would require 24/7 video surveillance and keycard access for rooms storing county election equipment. It would also mandate that election officials undergo training before overseeing an election, an acknowledgement that officials who aren’t versed in election systems are more susceptible to grifters and bad actors. Finally, the bill would increase penalties on people who try to interfere with elections. 

“We will not let conspiracy theorists threaten our democracy,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, who is a prime sponsor of the bill. 

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The Colorado County Clerks Association supports the measure. Association President Gilbert “Bo” Ortiz, Pueblo County’s clerk and a Democrat, called it the most important elections bill since Colorado dramatically expanded mail-in voting in 2013. 

The legislation is part of a package of measures at the Colorado Capitol this year aimed at addressing threats to election workers and disinformation, such as unfounded claims about the 2020 election. Among those proposals is one that would protect election workers against threats and doxxing, or the public posting of their personal information, typically with an intent to cause them harm, and efforts to provide more security for Griswold and other state officials. 

Vermont, Maine, Washington and other states have taken up similar measures. Griswold’s office recently sued the Republican county clerk in Elbert County in a separate election-security case. 

Here are some more details on Senate Bill 153, which is also sponsored by Rep. Susan Lontine, a Denver Democrat: 

  • Under the bill, people who have been convicted of election-related offenses or conspiracy to commit sedition, insurrection, treason or conspiracy to overthrow the government could not serve as a supervisory local election official.
  • Supervisory election officials, such as county clerks, would be prohibited from knowingly or recklessly circulating misinformation about elections.
  • County clerks and some state employees working on elections would have to complete an election certification program provided by the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. That program is currently required for some employees in county clerk and recorder’s offices. The program would include courses on voter registration, mail ballots, in-person voting processes and election security. County clerks who don’t complete the course wouldn’t be allowed to oversee their county’s elections. “I think it’s really important, seeing just the deluge of disinformation, that we provide — the Secretary of State’s Office — provide the training to designated election officials,” Griswold said.
  • Counties would not be allowed to create or disclose an image of their voting system’s hard drive without permission from the state. Local election officials would also have to keep all parts of their voting system in a room with keycard access and maintain a log tracking those who enter. All parts of the voting system would also have to be kept under video surveillance, with the video maintained for 25 months. As part of the Mesa County saga, an unknown man was allegedly allowed into secure parts of the county’s election office using an access badge belonging to a contractor. Security cameras in the area were allegedly disabled. 
  • Elected officials in counties with 100,000 people or more would be unable to have keycard access to rooms with voting equipment and could not be in such a room unsupervised. Those officials are currently not allowed to prepare or repair voting equipment. County clerks are elected. 
  • The legislation would set aside $500,000 to fund a state grant program to help counties comply with the bill’s requirements, like the keycard and video-surveillance mandates. 

Finally, the legislation would expand a requirement that people comply with state elections rules and policies, including on how to use the statewide voter registration system in carrying out official duties. Failing to do so would be punished by six to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. Preventing someone from notifying the state of a potential violation of the proposed law would be punished by a fine of up to $1,000, and by up to one year in jail.

Those who knowingly help publish passwords or other confidential voting system information would, under the bill, immediately have their access to the system revoked and have committed a Class 5 felony.

Tampering with voting equipment to change the tabulation of votes is a misdemeanor under current Colorado law.

Citing the recent grand jury indictment of Peters, Fenberg said he believed her actions were already illegal. 

“It’s not like we are making things that she did illegal retroactively, this is actually thinking proactively, about ensuring we have protections in place and that we are able to catch bad actors in the future,” he said. 

Shannon Najmabadi

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023. Email: Twitter: @ShannonNajma