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Clerks battle false claims as they prepare to administer elections

A Dominion Voting Systems ballot scanner is seen in this 2021 file photo. Election deniers have spread conspiracies about the Denver-based company's voting machines.
Ben Gray
A Dominion Voting Systems ballot scanner is seen in this 2021 file photo. Election deniers have spread conspiracies about the Denver-based company's voting machines.

Voting for the midterm elections is underway and election officials across the country are trying to get ready for all the ways two years of false claims and conspiracy theories may have damaged trust in their work.

That includes in Colorado. Even though it wasn't a swing state in 2020, Colorado has been at the forefront of false claims that the presidential election was stolen.

And by now, Republican Clerk Carly Koppes has probably heard it all. Koppes oversees elections in conservative Weld County in northern Colorado.

She says groups that believe the system is corrupt have been encouraging their members to get involved, including as poll watchers for the state's June primary.

"I approved 35 watchers during that primary election, and every single one of them had ties to either USEIP, which is a known election denier group, or other similar organizations that are also election denier groups as well," Koppes said. "This really does put us in a very tough spot."

The U.S. Election Integrity Plan says its goal is to defend democracy and root out fraud — including by canvassing door to door. The organization began in Colorado after the 2020 election and is not associated with any government entity or election office.

But Koppes says the volunteers' agenda didn't fluster her.

"I took full advantage of it, to be honest," she said. "I was like, thank you for giving me these people so that I can show them what actually happens.

"I literally had one watcher get on their knees and follow my wires just so that I could prove to them that it is a closed network, that it's not connected to the internet."

Election deniers have spread conspiracies that Dominion voting machines are connected to the internet and rigged votes for President Biden. The company is headquartered in Denver and is suing a number of pro-Trump media outlets and individuals for defamation.

Unlike past elections, Koppes said many poll watchers who volunteered did so specifically to observe her office. On a tour of Weld County's election office, Koppes pointed to bright green wires that connect the machines that scan paper ballots to a secure room where a different machine tabulates those results.

She covered part of the wire with clear tape to avoid a tripping hazard, but also made sure it was see-through.

"We've got our two holes in the wall, that they can see that it's actually going into the wall," she said. "And then on the other side that this is our secure server room and they can actually see from the window in there, it going straight into the server."

She's also adding video screens throughout the room to play PowerPoint presentations on different aspects of how the elections process works.

"Again, [we're] just trying to have that information constantly rolling, so hopefully, you know, they can stand here and they can watch that — and then have a little more educated questions," she said.

According to Colorado election officials, other conspiracies are circulating too. One false claim urges voters to intentionally make mistakes when filling out their paper ballot to trigger a hand count of that ballot.

"And that's not accurate," said Democratic Clerk Regina O'Brien in Eagle County, in western Colorado near Vail.

She said purposefully making a mistake will simply lead a bipartisan team of election judges to review the ballot before sending it on to the machine.

"If a ballot is mismarked, it will go to adjudication on the same tabulation systems that we use," she said.

As clerks battle misinformation, they are also trying to be more transparent. O'Brien is adding cameras and security, additional trainings and public tours. Counties like Denver will livestream their ballot processing room.

Matt Crane, a Republican who heads the Colorado County Clerks Association, testified before Congress on the increased threats election officials face.

"We're in this situation right now for two reasons," Crane said. "One because of a lie of a stolen election, which absolutely is a lie. The second and probably as big a reason is a failure of leadership for people who know the truth to stand up and speak the truth."

Crane says that makes the bipartisan efforts of Colorado election officials to restore trust even more critical.

Copyright 2022 CPR News

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.