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Rogue county officials spark fear of growing 'insider' threats to elections

Colorado Democrats will announce legislation Monday that would give the secretary of state new powers while subjecting local election officials to new penalties for wrongdoing.
Tina Peters
Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, who has been under investigation by state, federal and local authorities, reads an update on the election results in Grand Junction, Colo., on June 30, 2020.McKenzie Lange / The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel via AP file

Last August, Dallas Schroeder entered a secure facility in Elbert County, Colorado, and copied computers and hard drives that contained election and voter data.

Schroeder did so while on the phone with a pair of election denial activists who guided him through using a "forensic imager" device that retails for roughly $4,100, he later told Secretary of State Jena Griswold through his attorney, according to a copy of written responses provided to NBC News by Griswold’s office.  

But Schroeder, the Republican clerk and recorder who oversees the county’s elections, didn't need anyone's help gaining access to the facility: He used his key card. 

"The vast majority of both Republican and Democratic county elections officials do a wonderful job, but we are seeing these bad actors," said Griswold, a Democrat who launched an investigation into the incident involving Schroeder in January and later filed a lawsuit alleging he gave sensitive elections data to an unauthorized individual. 

Schroeder did not respond to requests for comment for this article. 

To date, election officials in at least six different counties in Colorado, Ohio and Michigan have been investigated by state officials, local or federal law enforcement authorities, or a mix of the three. Some have been accused of allowing improper access to election materials, or, as in Schroeder's case, of sharing sensitive election information with unauthorized people. In at least one county in Colorado, state officials have had to decertify election machines due to a breach — costing taxpayers. 

While the accused make up a small number of the thousands of county-level election chiefs nationwide, experts fear this may be the start of a worrying new trend as a surge of Trump backers who cast doubt on the integrity of the 2020 election mount campaigns for offices that would allow them to oversee the vote, while far-right activists urge others to take similar action. 

"You can see the kind of damage that could be done here by looking at sort of the few cases we have seen," Ben Berwick, counsel at Protect Democracy, a nonprofit voting rights and democracy advocacy group, said in an interview. "Bad actors in these positions can create chaos."

Leaked passwords, investigations and indictments 

Schroeder brought his actions to Griswold's attention when he signed on to a lawsuit against her last November brought by Republicans who sought an Arizona-style, third-party review of Colorado's presidential election results while citing a number of conspiracies, Griswold said her lawsuit.

In a signed affidavit filed in the ballot-review seeking suit, Schroeder said he copied the computers and hard drives because he feared a routine installation of software from Dominion Voting Systems, the company that provides electronic voting machines and associated software to hundreds of counties across the country, would erase records of the 2020 election.

It's an argument that echoes election conspiracies about hacked and manipulated electronic voting machines promoted by former President Donald Trump and his allies, including right-wing activists like Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO, who has become one of the loudest voices pushing baseless and debunked claims of voter fraud.

Schroeder appears to have gotten the idea from another county some 300 miles to the west of Elbert.

In the same affidavit, Schroeder said he had been told election materials were deleted by a Dominion software installation — what election officials call a trusted build — in Mesa County, Colorado, a county Trump carried by 28 points in 2020. 

Mesa County’s elections chief, clerk and recorder Tina Peters has been under investigation by Griswold’s office, federal investigators, and local authorities for allegedly allowing an unauthorized person to attend a trusted build installation last May and copying the hard drives of her county's voting machines.

Soon after, data including the passwords for the county’s voting machines were posted online. Those machines then had to be replaced and will reportedly cost several thousands more per year than the last set of machines. She was indicted Wednesday on 10 felony and misdemeanor charges.

Peters, a Republican, was stripped of her duties by a judge last year, and Griswold is fighting in court to keep her from administering the 2022 election. 

There’s no evidence of wrongdoing in Colorado's election, which President Joe Biden won by nearly 14 points; it has been audited by the state and certified. Peters, who spoke at a voter fraud conference hosted by Lindell in South Dakota last August, announced a bid for secretary of state on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon's podcast.

In Lake County, Ohio, which Trump won by nearly 14 points in 2020, federal and state officials are probing an attempt to breach the county’s election system last year. The Washington Post reported that a private laptop was plugged into the county election network inside the office of the president of the county board of commissioners. While the Post reported no sensitive information was obtained, network traffic captured by the computer was circulated at Lindell's August conference.

John Hamercheck, the president of the board of commissioners, has denied knowledge of the breach. In an email to NBC News, he said he was unaware if the case was still being investigated and said he has "never been contacted" by authorities. The FBI declined comment, while a spokesman for the Ohio attorney general’s office said its investigation remained open.

A few hours north in Michigan, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson last month asked the state attorney general's office and the state police to investigate reports that an unnamed third party had been given access to voting systems in Roscommon County. Both Benson and Michelle Stevenson, the Roscommon county clerk, declined to comment.

One name that kept popping up in connection with these incidents was Lindell's, who has been engaged in an 18-month crusade to validate fraud claims with the stated goal of eliminating voting machines across the country. (Mark Cook and Shawn Smith, the election denial activists that Schroeder said were involved in the Elbert County incident, have appeared at Lindell events; Smith says Lindell is funding his new group.)

Pressed by NBC News about county officials he may be working with, Lindell said: "I don’t know what you’re talking about."

"What we’re doing, we’re going around the country, the grassroots are asking them to get rid of the machines," he said, adding, "Tina Peters is a hero to this country because she did her job and so did many other county clerks. And no, I’m not going to give you their names."

Lindell's claims have been investigated and dismantled by Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisan analysts. In Idaho, a state Trump won by 30 points, Republican officials, following an inquiry that found Lindell's fraud claims meritless, sent Lindell a cease-and-desist letter demanding he stop spreading false claims about the state’s election results.

Chad Houck, Idaho's deputy secretary of state, told NBC News that his office has not come across a single county clerk who was indulging in Lindell's conspiracies.

"We have not come across a single county clerk that was not more interested in seeing us shut down the Lindell narratives and thankful that we were doing so," he said.

Back in Colorado, Griswold remains on high alert. In Schroeder's case, she sued after he told her through his attorney in response to her investigation that he had duplicated his first unauthorized copy of the elections data and send it to an unnamed private attorney.

In addition to the Mesa and Elbert county investigations, she investigated allegations in Douglas County, where a whistleblower claimed an election clerk was bragging about copying election servers online. No wrongdoing was uncovered.

She also recently implemented a new set of temporary rules that include a limit on how many county officials can have access to secure areas and servers.

On Monday, Colorado Democrats will announce new legislation that would give the secretary of state new powers — including the power to certify an election should local officials refuse to do so — while subjecting local election officials to new requirements, limits and penalties for wrongdoing. 

Local election officials would be required to take additional certification courses, including one on election security and how to combat misinformation and disinformation. They would also be subject to new restrictions that would make it easier for a court to strip local officials of their duties in running elections. For example, unauthorized access to or sharing confidential information about voting systems would become felony offenses. The bill would also prohibit individuals convicted of election offenses from overseeing elections. 

Election officials would also be barred from "knowingly or recklessly" making or spreading false statements "for the purpose of promoting misinformation or disinformation" about elections. 

"We have good systems in place to prevent and identify fraud when it comes from a voter or somebody who wants to undermine our elections from the outside," said Colorado Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation. "We need to do more to harden our systems from threats on the inside."