GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Just six weeks before the 2020 presidential election — game day for vote-counting bureaucrats — Tina Peters was so happy with her operation on the Mesa County clerk’s office that she invited a movie crew in to indicate it off. There’s no likelihood of mishap here, she boasted.
“The Russians can’t hack into and begin casting votes for somebody,” she said, as a couple of within the office chuckled.
By May 2021, it was Ms. Peters, not the Russians, who had helped engineer an audacious breach of voting machines, in keeping with an indictment charging her with seven felonies. Ms. Peters arranged to repeat sensitive election software from county voting machines in an try and prove the 2020 presidential election was rigged, in keeping with court records. Prosecutors said she committed identity theft and criminal impersonation, and violated the duties of her office in the method. Ms. Peters has pleaded not guilty.
The strange tale of Tina Peters — a once-ordinary public servant consumed by conspiracy theories and catapulted to minor stardom by believers — will take its next twist on Tuesday, when voters determine whether 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, but Ms. Peters is taken into account a contender.
Ms. Peters did not only stumble into the world of election conspiracy theories. A review of public statements and interviews with people involved in her case showed she was repeatedly assisted by a loose network of election deniers, a few of whom worked alongside Donald J. Trump’s legal team to attempt to subvert the presidential election in 2020. They’re still working to undermine confidence in elections today.
That network’s involvement is just one in every of several bizarre plot points in Ms. Peters’s case. The Mesa County breach involved a former surfer who impersonated a pc “nerd” and made a FaceTime call throughout the operation, reporting by The Recent York Times shows. Afterward, the crew shared their loot — images of voting machine data — at a conference streamed online, promoting the hassle to hundreds. On Friday, Ms. Peters told The Times that her congresswoman, Representative Lauren Boebert, “encouraged me to go forward with the imaging.”
A press officer for Ms. Boebert, a Republican, called the claim false.
Through all of it, Ms. Peters has parlayed the episode right into a national political profile on the proper, speaking at events across the country where she is widely known as a hero. Influential election deniers have come to her aid: Mike Lindell, the MyPillow executive who supports a stable of lawyers and researchers promoting bogus theories, says he has funneled as much as $200,000 to Ms. Peters’s legal defense. Others, including Patrick Byrne, a former Overstock executive, have run ads attacking her primary opponent.
In a press release to The Times, Ms. Peters declined to reply specific questions on the episode, citing pending litigation. In September, before Ms. Peters was indicted, her lawyer acknowledged that she had allowed “one non-employee” to repeat hard drives, but argued that there was no rule or regulation against it, something the secretary of state’s office disputes.
In public appearances since, Ms. Peters has said she made the copies because she fearful the voting machine company was going to delete computer systems that recorded the 2020 election and desired to preserve records. She has been less forthcoming about how the fabric ended up online.
“The people need to know HOW our elections have been turned over to machines with no oversight, transparency or real security in any meaningful way,” Ms. Peters said within the statement.
Materials released within the Mesa County breach have been used to fuel the churn of misinformation about President Biden’s victory. Election experts say the episode also highlights a growing vulnerability in election security: the insider threat.
For the reason that Mesa County breach was made public, there have been greater than a half-dozen reports of local election officials taking similar actions. Election conspiracy theory promoters claim there are more on the market.
Experts say the danger is that the very people trusted to perform elections could release confidential information and undermine security measures.
It’s a “recent and, frankly, more discouraging” threat, said 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 little bit of a North Star by way of how elections are conducted.”
Ballots within the Wind
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 top campaign issue the reopening of local Division of Motor Vehicles satellite offices, a promise she fulfilled quickly.
But she had more trouble with election administration. Three months after the 2019 election, greater than 500 ballots were found uncounted in a drop box outside the county election office. Within the 2020 presidential primary, accomplished ballots were found blowing within the wind near the clerk’s office, in keeping with The Day by day Sentinel, the newspaper in Grand Junction.
By July 2020, residents had begun a recall effort to remove her from office, but they did not obtain enough signatures.
The overall election in Mesa County in 2020 went off easily, with no complaints of fraud or other delays. Yet the conspiracy theories spouted by Mr. Trump quickly took hold on this deeply red county, and county commissioners were soon inundated with calls from constituents questioning the outcomes.
Ms. Peters eventually rejected requests to hand-count the ballots in her own county, where Mr. Trump won 62 percent of the vote, but she began to precise doubts concerning the national results. She connected with an area group, organized by Ms. Boebert’s former campaign manager, that met usually to swap theories. In April 2021, the group hosted Douglas Frank, a highschool math and science teacher 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 construct” of the county election equipment, in keeping with court records. The method is actually a software update — performed in a secure location by officials from the secretary of state’s office and employees of Dominion Voting Systems, the voting machine manufacturer — that election skeptics have come to imagine erases critical election data. It doesn’t.
Mr. Frank didn’t accept the offer, but one other member of the election denier network did attend, in keeping with court records and interviews. Conan Hayes was a former pro surfer who had worked with Mr. Trump’s legal team because it challenged the 2020 results. In 2021, Mr. Byrne paid him around $200,000 to proceed his work for a yr, in keeping with Mr. Byrne.
Based on an account from Mr. Byrne, and confirmed by Mr. Hayes, he attended the trusted construct on May 25, 2021. Mr. Hayes called Mr. Byrne from contained in the Mesa County election offices, speaking in a hushed voice and explaining that he’d been invited to make backup copies of machines by a government official who thought that a cover-up was underway, Mr. Byrne said. When the 2 spoke over FaceTime, Mr. Byrne saw Mr. Hayes was dressed like a pc “nerd” and wearing another person’s identification tag, Mr. Byrne said.
Ms. Peters had introduced a contractor on the event and identified him as Gerald Wood, an area I.T. consultant, in keeping with court records. The actual Mr. Wood, nonetheless, told investigators he was not there that day, or two days earlier, when his badge was used to enter a secure area.
Mr. Hayes has not been charged and isn’t named within the indictment, though a judge’s order did discover him as later receiving a package within the mail from Ms. Peters.
In a temporary phone interview, Mr. Hayes said Mr. Byrne’s account was accurate. “Patrick is pretty clear on things,” he said.
‘I’ve Seen Things I Can’t Unsee’
Ms. Peters didn’t speak intimately concerning the incident, though she alluded to acting on her worries concerning the election in a gathering with a county commissioner over the summer.
“She talked about these white-hat guys, and she or he talked about having brought someone in to have a 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 believe even twice at that one meeting, ‘I’ve seen things I can’t unsee.’”
In early August, passwords to the Mesa County election equipment appeared on a QAnon figure’s Telegram channel after which a right-wing website, resulting in an investigation by the secretary of state.
Days later, Mesa County’s breach found an excellent greater highlight at a “Cyber Symposium” in South Dakota organized by Mr. Lindell. After one in every of Mr. Lindell’s other wild claims, which Mr. Hayes had also worked on, fizzled, he modified the conversation: Ms. Peters appeared onstage to inform her story and the Mesa County conspiracy was born.
The Next Conspiracy Theory
As a part of Ms. Peters’s legal defense, information copied in Mesa County was soon packaged right into a series of three reports purporting to indicate corruption within the election system. They were pumped through the net forums and promoted at in-person meetings. Mesa County soon overtook other discredited theories, similar to the fictions about improprieties in Antrim County, Mich., that Mr. Trump eagerly promoted.
In truth, a number of the same figures were involved in crafting each conspiracy theories. Mr. Hayes had helped to acquire the Antrim County information. And a cybersecurity firm, Allied Security Operations Group, that wrote the debunked Antrim evaluation also produced the Mesa County reports for Ms. Peters’s legal team, in keeping with the firm’s leader. There is no such thing as a evidence the group was involved within the Mesa County breach.
Mr. Byrne calls the reports “the Rosetta Stone for us to prove the entire thing.” But experts say they reveal no problems in any respect. Two of the three reports don’t even suggest issues with election results and, as an alternative, draw false conclusions concerning the vulnerability of elections machines by misinterpreting certain laws and procedures, said Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, who has studied the reports closely.
A 3rd report claims to indicate anomalies in two Mesa County elections. But the problems were attributable to human error and there was no evidence that any vote counts were improper, in keeping with the Mesa County District Attorney’s office, which did an intensive investigation.
In February, Ms. Peters decided to attempt to turn her celebrity into political power, announcing a bid for secretary of state.
She made appearances on Stephen K. Bannon’s podcast and linked up with a gaggle of far-right candidates for secretary of state across the country. She secured a speaking slot at a rally held by Mr. Trump in Wyoming.
In March, Ms. Peters was indicted on 10 criminal counts related to the hassle to repeat voting equipment software, including attempting to influence a public servant, criminal impersonation, conspiracy to commit criminal impersonation, identity theft and first-degree official misconduct.
On the campaign trail, Ms. Peters says the costs are politically motivated. She has claimed the investigation is an element of a “globalist takeover” and casts herself as a martyr for a cause.
“I went to jail for you and I’ll proceed to do it,” she told a gaggle of election activists in Texas in April.
Ms. Peters has declined to say who’s paying her lawyers, but has directed people wanting to support her legal efforts to donate to the Lindell Legal Offense Fund, which Mr. Lindell says he uses for various lawsuits and projects.
Within the closing days of the campaign, Ms. Peters has received other assistance. A recent super PAC in Colorado called Residents for Election Integrity has spent $198,000 on advertisements attacking Pam Anderson, one in every of Ms. Peters’s opponents for the Republican nomination, in keeping with campaign finance disclosures.
The group recently received a $100,000 donation from The America Project, a gaggle founded by Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, one other figure within the fight to overturn the 2020 election, and Mr. Byrne.
Ryan Biller contributed reporting from Grand Junction, Colo.