Colorado election officials take physical security into their own hands
This story is part of a project called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are shining a light on threats to democracy.
(Colorado Newsline) You can’t just walk into the El Paso County clerk’s office. Not anymore.
“It used to be you could come in our front door and talk to our receptionist,” Chuck Broerman, the Republican El Paso clerk, said during an interview in his second floor office in Colorado Springs. “But we had to put two-way cameras up, we had to create an electronic latch there so that we could control the ingress and egress into our area. So, yeah, we’ve had to put measures into place to try to create a buffer for someone wanting to come in and either do harm or threat. We just felt that that was necessary.”
What made it necessary was the emergence of conspiracy theories after the 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump falsely claimed that the vote was rigged. The “big lie” and lingering stop-the-steal passions persist among MAGA activists around the country, including Colorado counties like El Paso.
Broerman and his staff were reminded of this during a recount of the June 28 Colorado primary. Several losing GOP candidates demanded and paid for a recount in the county, and during the tabulation process the staff experienced “a lot of vitriol” from a group of the candidates’ supporters.
“We had a lot of people observing from outside our tabulation area, and some of them were chanting and tapping and banging on the glass, they would put notes on the window making some nonspecific claims and accusations,” Broerman said. “To have people out in the hallway, praying for evil to descend on myself and our election team is quite disconcerting and troubling.”
The office provided escorts for election judges leaving the building. And for the first time, it hired security personnel to be present for the process.
“Never had to do something like that before. Never felt the reason to do so,” Broerman said.
Such measures are becoming all too familiar in election offices throughout Colorado. County clerks and other election officials and staff have found it necessary to take their physical security into their own hands.
To protect themselves against the threats from election deniers and other MAGA opponents who jeopardize the safe conduct of free and fair elections, officials since 2020 have adopted security measures that are typically more associated with law enforcement than clerks’ offices.
“We really are in uncharted territory here,” Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, said.
Crane, a Republican, said threats against election officials and staff often increase after election-related events — there were upticks after election-denying Republican Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters was accused last year of facilitating a security breach in her own election office and when in June she lost her primary election for secretary of state and demanded a recount.
Upticks also follow major election denial events hosted by Trump ally Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, such as his “Moment of Truth Summit” last month.
Crane, who has been vocal in denouncing election deniers, receives threats himself. In August 2021 a man from Texas left him a voicemail that said, “Hey Crane, you better lay off Mesa County, because they’re going to come after you if you don’t. They don’t like you out there in Colorado, you stupid motherf*****, dirty, crooked motherf*****.”
“I get the sense that people don’t think that this is real, that it’s been hyped up or overblown, and I can just assure people that it’s not,” Crane said. “Threats against the election officials and against election facilities are very real.”
Multiple clerks told Newsline that they regularly alter their travel routines so they can’t be easily tracked. More than one election official alluded to Second Amendment rights in relation to their work regime.
“We have clerks that are, if they have concealed carry, they’re making sure that they are exercising their Second Amendment right much more frequently,” Crane said.
Josh Zygielbaum, the Democratic Adams County clerk, regularly wears a bulletproof vest at work, where election staff have experienced “a continual flow of really just nastiness from those who don’t believe in the election process,” he said.
“We have people that have invited us onto the battlefield before,” Zygielbaum said. “One recently, a couple days ago, said that if we didn’t acknowledge his grievance, he was going to come to our office.”
Other protective measures the Adams County elections department has adopted include a remodel of the office, so that members of the public no longer can simply walk in. The staff starting in 2020 has undergone active shooter training with the Adams County Sheriff’s SWAT team. A former Marine, Zygielbaum has drawn on his military training to maintain personal security.
“I personally do take altering routes to and from work every single day,” he said. “I take different routes when I go places in general, just for increased security, and that’s something that I learned while in the Marines. So that training is certainly carried forward.”
Carly Koppes, the Republican clerk for Weld County, said her upbringing with a father who was a sheriff’s deputy taught her to be aware of her surroundings, a practice that has been valuable in light of the recent dangers faced by election workers.
“I have kind of a little bit of a random schedule, as far as work goes, not always coming in at the same time or consistent time and leaving the office, not a consistent time as well,” she said. “So it’s more difficult for anybody to get a pattern from myself.”
Koppes has continued to be the target of harassing and threatening communication, largely emails, since 2020, and she doesn’t expect the pattern to abate. In one recent email, the writer said the military would be coming for her, she’ll be thrown in Guantanamo Bay, and “if I have a husband, I should let him read it because I’m going to be indicted for war crimes and he’ll not be able to save me.”
She has referred several harassers to the FBI.
The election official in Colorado who almost certainly faces the most troubling threats is Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat who because of her position at the pinnacle of Colorado election administration and her outspoken rejection of election conspiracy theories is a frequent target. In February, the insurrectionist and influential election denier Shawn Smith said during a public gathering, referring to Griswold, that people who are involved in election fraud “deserve to hang.”
In the following days, on social media and in emails, Griswold became the target of a raft of execution threats. Her office during this year’s legislative session was able to secure additional state funds to hire private security, though it was less money than the office requested. The office has contracted private security at $85,000 in the fiscal year that ended at the end of June and $32,400 so far during the current fiscal year, according to a spokesperson.
Larger counties, like El Paso and Adams, have the resources to make substantial election office security improvements. But smaller counties often do not.
“I’ve heard from multiple folks who have said, ‘You know, we got these physical security assessments that are fantastic, I just can’t afford to do most of it,'” Crane said. “So funding is a huge issue. Especially for those small and medium-sized counties.”
Local, state and federal governments all have responsibility to ensure such security, Crane said. The need is bigger than ever, and he doesn’t expect the threat level to ease any time soon.
“We fully expect that, if certain people lose races in 2022 in the general election, that we’ll see an uptick in it again,” Crane said. “Unfortunately, it seems to be almost the status quo at this point.”