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Colorado County Clerks say they are tired of being threatened, they are tired of the lies about the 2020 election, they are tired of the service to their communities being questioned and they want it to stop. They have been verbally and  physically threatened, libeled in written documents and on private social media groups, challenged in court, and some have received death threats.  All because they are public servants doing their jobs.

“It’s disgraceful. It’s a sad state of our time that these things are happening. We’re talking about elected officials who go to work every day making sure that people have the right to vote,” said Colorado County Clerk’s Association Executive Director Matt Crane about the growing attacks on county clerks.”The fact that they are dealing with death threats — it’s a disgrace. So many people are upset that their candidate lost. I totally get that, but the claims are lies. The purposeful disinformation makes it more reprehensible.”

Chaffee County Clerk & Recorder Lori Mitchell, says it doesn’t matter what the county clerk’s party affiliations are, or whether they are Democrats or Republicans. Across the board in the lead up to the 2020 election and in the follow-up to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, clerks have been harassed, threatened, had their service to their counties and to the public questioned, and feared for their lives.

Chaffee County Clerk and Recorder Lori Mitchell, at work preparing for the 2020 Presidential Primary Election.

Mitchell hasn’t just been threatened, she has been terrorized. On June 22 an incident occurred in Salida, only a few blocks from the County Administration Building as she left work.

The driver of a late model sport utility vehicle pulled up and pointed a realistic-looking gun at her and simulated firing it. It turned out to be a water gun — but that didn’t change the heart-stopping impact of being threatened. Mitchell said although terrorized, she was also so angry that she followed him and recorded his license plate.

She reported the incident to dispatch that same day. Because it occurred within the city of Salida, she expected a call from the Salida Police Department.

But during a July 6 conversation with Salida Police Chief Russ Johnson, Ark Valley Voice learned that Michell’s incident report had not yet reached the Salida Police Department.  Mitchell said the department followed up with her immediately after learning of the incident. As it turns out, the dispatchers heard the word squirt gun — and appeared to minimize the report.

Chaffee County Sheriff John Speeze confirmed that she had described the incident to him. But because it fell outside his law enforcement jurisdiction, the Sheriff’s Department is not in charge of the investigation.

Depending upon circumstances, an incident like this could constitute what is known as felony menacing. “The Colorado state statute for felony menacing is when someone knowingly does something to put a person in fear of serious bodily injury,” said Johnson. “For her to see the object pointed at her, she might not know if it was real or fake but the fear is what matters.”

Johnson said that given Mitchell’s role as an elected official, the incident is concerning. “It’s happening in professions like hers,” he added.

Current Executive Director Matt Crane and former Executive Director Pam Anderson. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Clerks Association. Both have fought election disinformation.

Crane, who is a Republican and former Arapahoe County Clerk, added that there is such a thing as ‘losers lament’, but that the current threats against election officials across Colorado and nationwide, seem unprecedented.

“I know of one clerk who has received death threats. Others have been followed, there has been doxing, verbal threats, physical violence. Election officials have reached out to local law enforcement and to the federal government as well [the FBI and the Dept. of Homeland Security] because county clerk’s offices are critical infrastructure. We take this seriously.”

“When you talk to the county clerks, so many have been threatened….. I am tired of not speaking out to tell the public that it’s happening, and I say, enough,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell is referring to the big lie that Trump won the 2020 election and beneath that, the other big lie that somehow voter fraud occurred. Among the fanciful claims — that Italy parachuted in some sort to technical devices that changed votes — or that somehow voting systems were rigged to change votes — but only some votes, on some ballots, in some states and some counties.

None of this is true.

Crane adds that this intimidation drive against county clerks is trying to change reality. “While this has happened in the past with both parties, now if you have the temerity to say the voting systems worked properly, that the election wasn’t stolen, there are highly emotional Trump voters out there who then go after county clerks.”

He adds the Colorado 2020 election wasn’t close. “It was entirely predictable that he lost. If you look at the polling done at the time of the election – the results of the election hold up with the polling here in the state. The numbers and results DO make sense, it’s not because of voter fraud — it’s just because Colorado has changed.”

He stressed that most people don’t understand the election process, and aren’t getting their information from trusted local sources; which happen to be local county clerks. “There is an analogy – you don’t go to Home Depot for sports scores, you don’t go to a pillow website for election information.”

The 2020 election was called “the safest and most secure election in U.S. history by no less than Trump’s hand-picked election security leader Christopher Krebs. U.S. Attorney General William Barr said he found no evidence of voter fraud. There were winners — and there were losers, many of whom apparently don’t accept the results of a democratic election.

Chaffee County candidate for Commissioner Hannah Hannah responded ‘yes’ to a direct question to all county candidates during the Ark Valley Voice Candidate Forum in Sept. asking if they would accept the results of the 2020 election. But after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Hannah began to claim that the election had been stolen from her. In fact, it wasn’t close: incumbent Keith Baker garnered 7,820 votes against 5,204 for Hannah Hannah and 472 for Bonnie Davis.

“These lies about the election, about voter fraud that is nonexistent — this is putting my life at risk and my staff’s life at risk,” said Mitchell. “The 2020 election was a free and fair election. There is no voter fraud — well you could count the vote that Barry Morphew put in when he voted his missing wife’s ballot for Trump.”

Across the state, counties are beginning to take action to ensure the safety of their county clerk’s offices. Here in Chaffee County, the local Clerk and Recorder’s office has been reinforced with bullet-proof glass. The staff has received training in personal protection. The sheriff’s office is doing extra patrols.

After the steps taken by Colorado clerk’s offices to make the process of voting accessible during a global pandemic, they are now pulling back to protect their staff. The irony is not lost on Mitchell.

“We started doing things to make everyone safe for the voting, then we had to pull back due to threats to us before the election and after. Our staffs are afraid. Elections are very stressful anyhow, but now we’re seeing higher than normal turnover. A lot of longtime people with institutional knowledge across the country, and election officials are retiring.”

In addition to their personal safety, there is the question of integrity.

County Clerk Lori Mitchell and an election assistant outside the large voting tent at the Chaffee County building. Dan Smith photo

“We are having our personal integrity called into question every single day,” said Mitchell. “Administering elections is not political, it is a job, it is professional. In fact, administering elections is part of our statutory duties. We have wonderful election judges who volunteer their time, and their reputations are under attack too.”

She points out that the Colorado Clerks Association is constantly upgrading voting processes, with even more security added to eliminate any possibility of voter fraud or voter confusion.”There is never a finish line, we’re always looking for things to make it better.”

Mitchell, who is a former past president of the Colorado County Clerk’s Association says that the association is growing increasingly concerned about voter disinformation. In the past year, active efforts across fringe conspiracy groups such as QAnon, evangelical militant groups, and Patriot groups have grown. Even some state elected officials have spread disinformation about the integrity of the state’s election processes, which are considered the national “gold standard” for election management.

Dist. 15 State Representative Dave Williams has chimed in on a patently biased Facebook group making insinuations about the 2020 Chaffee County election, offering not a single shred of evidence for the claims made.

“The thing that shows you they’re trying to spread disinformation is they don’t know anything about how elections are run,” says Mitchell. “We have multilayers of security. If you ask county clerks, they’ll tell you that you don’t pull video to find out if the election is fraudulent or not…. you go to that  layer after you find something in the first protective processes that raises questions.”

“Lori is one of the best in the country at what she does. The Chaffee County community should celebrate her and the creative and fun ways she does her job,” said Crane. “The county clerk isn’t a political job, it’s an administrative job. It’s about competency. This is someone you can trust, who stands up to fight disinformation. She’s the best – and I’m a Republican. That’s how you know a clerk is doing their job when you can’t tell their party affiliation because they are working so hard to do the job right.”

For her part, Mitchell says “I still have my goal of serving my citizens and I work hard every day to offer better customer service to show voters how they interact with their government.” She adds that there is another looming fear for county clerks. “If there is another close election — and this past one wasn’t close — they will for sure try to turn it over.”

That would beg the question — is this still a democracy?