Politics

The Election Conspiracy Theories Driving Tina Peters to Run in Colorado

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Just six weeks earlier than the 2020 presidential election — recreation day for vote-counting bureaucrats — Tina Peters was so pleased with her operation on the Mesa County clerk’s office that she invited a movie crew in to present it off. There’s no likelihood of mishap right here, she boasted.

“The Russians can’t hack into and start casting votes for someone,” she mentioned, as a number of in the office chuckled.

By May 2021, it was Ms. Peters, not the Russians, who had helped engineer an audacious breach of voting machines, in accordance to an indictment charging her with seven felonies. Ms. Peters organized to copy delicate election software from county voting machines in an try to show the 2020 presidential election was rigged, in accordance to court docket information. Prosecutors mentioned she dedicated id theft and felony impersonation, and violated the duties of her office in the method. Ms. Peters has pleaded not responsible.

The unusual story of Tina Peters — a once-ordinary public servant consumed by conspiracy theories and catapulted to minor stardom by believers — will take its subsequent twist on Tuesday, when voters resolve whether or not to make the indicted public official the Republican nominee for secretary of state, the highest election official in Colorado. Polls are sparse in the first race, however Ms. Peters is taken into account a contender.

Ms. Peters didn’t simply stumble into the world of election conspiracy theories. A overview of public statements and interviews with individuals concerned in her case confirmed she was repeatedly assisted by a free community of election deniers, a few of whom labored alongside Donald J. Trump’s authorized staff to strive to subvert the presidential election in 2020. They are nonetheless working to undermine confidence in elections in the present day.

That community’s involvement is only one of a number of weird plot factors in Ms. Peters’s case. The Mesa County breach concerned a former surfer who impersonated a computer “nerd” and made a FaceTime name in the course of the operation, reporting by The New York Times reveals. Afterward, the crew shared their loot — pictures of voting machine information — at a convention streamed on-line, promoting the trouble to hundreds. On Friday, Ms. Peters informed The Times that her congresswoman, Representative Lauren Boebert, “encouraged me to go forward with the imaging.”

A press officer for Ms. Boebert, a Republican, known as the declare false.

Through all of it, Ms. Peters has parlayed the episode right into a nationwide political profile on the fitting, talking at occasions throughout the nation the place she is widely known as a hero. Influential election deniers have come to her help: Mike Lindell, the MyPillow govt who helps a steady of attorneys and researchers selling bogus theories, says he has funneled as a lot as $200,000 to Ms. Peters’s authorized protection. Others, together with Patrick Byrne, a former Overstock govt, have run adverts attacking her major opponent.

In a press release to The Times, Ms. Peters declined to answer particular questions concerning the episode, citing pending litigation. In September, earlier than Ms. Peters was indicted, her lawyer acknowledged that she had allowed “one non-employee” to copy arduous drives, however argued that there was no rule or regulation towards it, one thing the secretary of state’s office disputes.

In public appearances since, Ms. Peters has mentioned she made the copies as a result of she apprehensive the voting machine company was going to delete computer programs that recorded the 2020 election and wished to protect information. She has been much less forthcoming about how the fabric ended up on-line.

“The people want to know HOW our elections have been turned over to machines with no oversight, transparency or real security in any meaningful way,” Ms. Peters mentioned in the assertion.

Materials launched in the Mesa County breach have been used to gasoline the churn of misinformation about President Biden’s victory. Election specialists say the episode additionally highlights a rising vulnerability in election safety: the insider risk.

Since the Mesa County breach was made public, there have been greater than a half-dozen studies of native election officers taking related actions. Election conspiracy idea promoters declare there are extra on the market.

Experts say the hazard is that the very individuals trusted to perform elections might launch confidential data and undermine safety measures.

It’s a “new and, frankly, more discouraging” risk, mentioned Christopher Krebs, who ran the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency on the Department of Homeland Security from 2018 to 2020. “Institutionally, we’ve lost a bit of a North Star in terms of how elections are conducted.”

Tina Peters’s 2018 election to clerk and recorder of Mesa County, a Republican stronghold amid the canyons of western Colorado, was her first foray into public office. A former flight attendant who ran a construction company along with her ex-husband, Ms. Peters made her prime marketing campaign subject the reopening of native Division of Motor Vehicles satellite tv for pc workplaces, a promise she fulfilled shortly.

But she had extra bother with election administration. Three months after the 2019 election, greater than 500 ballots were found uncounted in a drop field outdoors the county election office. In the 2020 presidential major, accomplished ballots have been discovered blowing in the wind close to the clerk’s office, according to The Daily Sentinel, the newspaper in Grand Junction.

By July 2020, residents had begun a recall effort to take away her from office, however they failed to get hold of sufficient signatures.

The normal election in Mesa County in 2020 went off easily, with no complaints of fraud or different delays. Yet the conspiracy theories spouted by Mr. Trump shortly took maintain in this deeply pink county, and county commissioners have been quickly inundated with calls from constituents questioning the outcomes.

Ms. Peters ultimately rejected requests to hand-count the ballots in her personal county, the place Mr. Trump received 62 p.c of the vote, however she started to specific doubts concerning the nationwide outcomes. She linked with a neighborhood group, organized by Ms. Boebert’s former marketing campaign supervisor, that met often to swap theories. In April 2021, the group hosted Douglas Frank, a highschool math and science instructor in Ohio whose debunked theories have been influential with election conspiracists.

After seeing Mr. Frank’s presentation, Ms. Peters invited him to attend an upcoming “trusted build” of the county election gear, in accordance to court docket information. The course of is actually a software replace — carried out in a safe location by officers from the secretary of state’s office and workers of Dominion Voting Systems, the voting machine producer — that election skeptics have come to consider erases crucial election information. It doesn’t.

Mr. Frank didn’t settle for the supply, however one other member of the election denier community did attend, in accordance to court docket information and interviews. Conan Hayes was a former professional surfer who had labored with Mr. Trump’s authorized staff because it challenged the 2020 outcomes. In 2021, Mr. Byrne paid him round $200,000 to proceed his work for a year, in accordance to Mr. Byrne.

According to an account from Mr. Byrne, and confirmed by Mr. Hayes, he attended the trusted build on May 25, 2021. Mr. Hayes known as Mr. Byrne from contained in the Mesa County election workplaces, talking in a hushed voice and explaining that he’d been invited to make backup copies of machines by a authorities official who thought {that a} cover-up was underway, Mr. Byrne mentioned. When the 2 spoke over FaceTime, Mr. Byrne noticed Mr. Hayes was dressed like a computer “nerd” and sporting another person’s identification tag, Mr. Byrne mentioned.

Ms. Peters had launched a contractor on the occasion and recognized him as Gerald Wood, a neighborhood I.T. marketing consultant, in accordance to court docket information. The actual Mr. Wood, nonetheless, informed investigators he was not there that day, or two days earlier, when his badge was used to enter a safe space.

Mr. Hayes has not been charged and isn’t named in the indictment, although a choose’s order did determine him as later receiving a bundle in the mail from Ms. Peters.

In a quick telephone interview, Mr. Hayes mentioned Mr. Byrne’s account was correct. “Patrick is pretty clear on things,” he mentioned.

Ms. Peters didn’t converse in element concerning the incident, although she alluded to performing on her worries concerning the election in a meeting with a county commissioner over the summer season.

“She talked about these white-hat guys, and she talked about having brought someone in to look at the computers, and that she now believed there was some compromise to the machines,” recalled Janet Rowland, a Republican and county commissioner in Mesa County. “And that was when she used the phrase, I think even twice at that one meeting, ‘I’ve seen things I can’t unsee.’”

In early August, passwords to the Mesa County election gear appeared on a QAnon determine’s Telegram channel after which a right-wing web site, main to an investigation by the secretary of state.

Days later, Mesa County’s breach discovered a fair larger highlight at a “Cyber Symposium” in South Dakota organized by Mr. Lindell. After one in every of Mr. Lindell’s different wild claims, which Mr. Hayes had additionally labored on, fizzled, he modified the dialog: Ms. Peters appeared onstage to inform her story and the Mesa County conspiracy was born.

As a part of Ms. Peters’s authorized protection, data copied in Mesa County was quickly packaged right into a collection of three studies purporting to present corruption in the election system. They have been pumped by the net boards and promoted at in-person conferences. Mesa County quickly overtook different discredited theories, such because the fictions about improprieties in Antrim County, Mich., that Mr. Trump eagerly promoted.

In reality, among the similar figures have been concerned in crafting each conspiracy theories. Mr. Hayes had helped to get hold of the Antrim County data. And a cybersecurity agency, Allied Security Operations Group, that wrote the debunked Antrim evaluation additionally produced the Mesa County studies for Ms. Peters’s authorized staff, in accordance to the agency’s chief. There is not any proof the group was concerned in the Mesa County breach.

Mr. Byrne calls the studies “the Rosetta Stone for us to prove the whole thing.” But specialists say they reveal no issues in any respect. Two of the three studies don’t even counsel points with election outcomes and, as a substitute, draw false conclusions concerning the vulnerability of elections machines by misinterpreting sure legal guidelines and procedures, mentioned Matt Crane, govt director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, who has studied the studies carefully.

A 3rd report claims to present anomalies in two Mesa County elections. But the problems have been attributable to human error and there was no proof that any vote counts have been improper, in accordance to the Mesa County District Attorney’s office, which did an intensive investigation.

In February, Ms. Peters determined to strive to flip her superstar into political energy, saying a bid for secretary of state.

She made appearances on Stephen Okay. Bannon’s podcast and linked up with a bunch of far-right candidates for secretary of state throughout the nation. She secured a talking slot at a rally held by Mr. Trump in Wyoming.

In March, Ms. Peters was indicted on 10 felony counts associated to the trouble to copy voting gear software, together with making an attempt to affect a public servant, felony impersonation, conspiracy to commit felony impersonation, id theft and first-degree official misconduct.

​​On the marketing campaign path, Ms. Peters says the costs are politically motivated. She has claimed the investigation is a part of a “globalist takeover” and casts herself as a martyr for a trigger.

“I went to jail for you and I will continue to do it,” she informed a bunch of election activists in Texas in April.

Ms. Peters has declined to say who’s paying her attorneys, however has directed individuals wanting to help her authorized efforts to donate to the Lindell Legal Offense Fund, which Mr. Lindell says he makes use of for varied lawsuits and initiatives.

​​In the closing days of the marketing campaign, Ms. Peters has obtained different help. A brand new tremendous PAC in Colorado known as Citizens for Election Integrity has spent $198,000 on ads attacking Pam Anderson, one in every of Ms. Peters’s opponents for the Republican nomination, in accordance to marketing campaign finance disclosures.

The group just lately obtained a $100,000 donation from The America Project, a bunch based by Mr. Trump’s former nationwide safety adviser, Michael Flynn, one other determine in the struggle to overturn the 2020 election, and Mr. Byrne.

Ryan Biller contributed reporting from Grand Junction, Colo.

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