Nine months after the 2020 election, the call came in. The Colorado secretary of state’s office was on the phone and wanted to know why the passwords for Mesa County’s election equipment were on the internet for anyone to see. But the powers that be in Mesa County didn’t even know the passwords had leaked.
“We’re saying, ‘What are you talking about?’” recalled Mesa County Commissioner Scott McInnis.
Images of screens displaying the passwords had been shared a few days earlier on the chat app Telegram by a QAnon leader. The Colorado secretary of state launched an investigation and issued an order for Tina Peters, the county clerk, to let them inspect the equipment and try to get to the bottom of what happened.
But there was a problem. Peters wasn’t in Mesa County. She was on her way to South Dakota for a “Cyber Symposium” hosted by Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow and one of the most prominent peddlers of the Big Lie. Data from Mesa County election equipment hard drives were later displayed at the symposium. The man talking about them was that same QAnon leader — Ron Watkins — the former administrator of the message board where Q, the shadowy figure behind the QAnon conspiracy movement, posted the bulk of their posts. Watkins is so deeply entangled with QAnon that many experts believe he may have been Q himself.
These days, Peters is back in Mesa County. She has to be. She can’t leave the state after being recently indicted by a grand jury on 10 counts, including seven felony charges, for allegedly using a false identity and lying to state employees while allowing an unauthorized individual to make copies of the election equipment hard drive. When I visited last month, I found her at the Hilton DoubleTree in Grand Junction — the county seat — where she was attending the county GOP Assembly to campaign for her spot on the primary ballot. She’s now running for secretary of state. There, sitting on a patio with her bright white bob sparkling in the sun, she told me that her decision to copy the election equipment hard drives was not only allowed but required. And she believes those copies have revealed serious vulnerabilities in the county’s election equipment.
“If I want somebody to come in and preserve my election records, that is my role, and that is my duty,” Peters said. “That’s what I did.”
But the way she chose to go about “preserving” those records has wrought havoc on Mesa County and on Peters herself. Addressing the fallout of her actions, including having to replace election equipment deemed compromised by the state, has cost more than $1 million of tax-payer money, according to McInnis. Her actions also led to the indictment charges, for which she faces up to 28 years in jail and $2.7 million in fines, with the potential for more charges coming. And it has sown further mistrust in the election system among voters, all while failing to unearth any actual evidence of election fraud.
Peters’s story is wild. It begins with an after-hours backup of the hard drives straight out of a heist movie and also includes switched-off security cameras, the MyPillow guy and Peters donkey-kicking a cop in a bagel shop (when I spoke with Peters, she got out of her seat to demonstrate how it was accidental). It’s a singular sequence of events. But it may also be a preview of what’s to come for other communities across the country. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when those charged with overseeing our elections believe in the Big Lie. And with scores of Big Lie-believing candidates seeking offices large and small this year, there’s a chance your community could become the next Mesa County.
There are likely hundreds of would-be Tina Peterses all across the country — candidates running for elected office in the midterm elections who believe, to varying extents, that the 2020 election was rife with fraud, despite all their evidence being categorically debunked. In Texas alone, 43 Big Lie-endorsing candidates have run in the state’s congressional and gubernatorial races thus far. Election fraud believers are also running for less high-profile jobs that would give them influence over elections: secretary of state, attorney general and, yes, county clerk.
Getting such candidates elected to these positions is an explicitly stated goal of some of the biggest promoters of the Big Lie. Steve Bannon, the former Donald Trump strategist whose podcast played a key role in spreading the election fraud theory (and who himself was indicted on charges of contempt of Congress for refusing to testify to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol), has promoted these candidates on his podcast and stressed the importance of voting for his anointed picks.
“We’re taking this back village by village,” Bannon said on an episode last summer. “Where the energy is, is taking these school boards back. Where the energy is, is precinct committeemen, people signing up to throw out the GOP establishment.”
Peters, for her part, wasn’t always a voter fraud conspiracist. When she was elected in 2018, there was little talk of elections. Her main platform point was a pledge to reopen two DMV offices.
“[The race] was solely focused on motor vehicles more than it was elections,” said Bobbie Gross, Peters’s opponent in the GOP primary that year and one of the candidates running to replace Peters as county clerk this year.
And even directly following the 2020 election, Peters told me she trusted everything had gone smoothly. When people started coming to her with questions and allegations of fraud, she said she didn’t think there was anything to them.
“I said, ‘You know what? Bring me what you have, we’ll check it out,’” Peters said. “Now, in my mind, I’m thinking we’ll just debunk it and we’ll explain how that can’t be possible.”
But something started to erode Peters’s prior belief that the county’s elections were secure. As early as January 2021, Peters tweeted election fraud conspiracies from a personal account, claiming that it’s possible to “tabulate ballots more than once favoring a candidate” and to “change algorithm in a voting machine.” Then in April, when the most staunchly conservative candidates in the Grand Junction City Council race did not win, Peters was surprised. “When I pulled the tallies at 7 p.m. for the municipal election, I was shocked. I was shocked,” Peters said. “I went, ‘There’s no way.’”
Of course, election surprises happen all the time. While Mesa County as a whole is comfortably red, Grand Junction itself has grown more moderate over the past few years, even leaning blue in some neighborhoods. The candidates who won also largely had more experience with local government, and many sources with knowledge of Mesa County politics told me there was nothing surprising about the results of the race.
Two weeks after the city council election, Peters requested her staff attend a presentation by Douglas Frank, a high school math teacher from Ohio who was touring the country making claims of election fraud. It was around this time that the secretary of state’s office informed county clerks that they were planning to conduct what’s called a “trusted build,” a secure but routine in-person update of the software on all election equipment in the state that takes place in a lull between elections. The update requires the presence of employees from the secretary of state’s office, the local county clerk’s offices and Dominion — the manufacturer of the voting machines for most counties in Colorado, including Mesa County. As part of the preparations, every county was required to back up all election data prior to the update to make sure no important information was lost.
Peters was making her own preparations. On May 17, eight days before the update was to occur, Peters’s deputy clerk, Belinda Knisley, requested that the security cameras in the election offices be turned off. While legal, multiple sources told me the cameras were not typically turned off.
Peters has been forthcoming about the fact that she made backups of the election equipment hard drive. She also confirmed that she had the security cameras turned off. But she’s less open to speaking about precisely how it all went down from there. When asked if anyone helped her make the backups, she told me: “I don’t want to really talk about that, because that’s under investigation.”
The indictment against Peters alleges that the Sunday before the update was to take place, three security badges were used while accessing secured election offices. One of those badges belonged to Peters, another to an elections manager who would later be fired, and the last to a man named Gerald Wood, who had only been hired as a temp worker the week before and who says he wasn’t there that day. Then, on the day of the update, employees of the secretary of state’s office and Dominion testified that Peters introduced a clerk’s office employee as Gerald Wood. But, again, Wood said he wasn’t there that day and provided an alibi to back it up. Peters has been charged with, among other things, identity theft and criminal impersonation.
“It’s almost like a miniature Watergate,” said McInnis.
I emailed Peters a detailed list of follow-up questions about these specific allegations in the indictment, but she did not provide a response prior to publication.
In August, Watkins — the QAnon guy — made the data from those hard drive copies available online, right after he leaked the photos and videos that included the Mesa County passwords. Watkins did not respond to questions sent to him via his lawyer.
The leak prompted the secretary of state’s office to begin an investigation, which revealed the ballot tabulation machines had been compromised and needed to be decertified and replaced at the county’s expense. The secretary of state also filed a petition to have a judge strip Peters and Knisley of their authority to oversee the November 2021 election.
“I’m happy to walk through what an election record is and what it isn’t. But lying to my office, allowing unauthorized access to voting equipment, leaking sensitive passwords that control the motherboard of the entire voting equipment and compromising voting equipment is not allowed,” said Jena Griswold, Colorado’s secretary of state, in an interview. “That creates a security risk.”
Peters, meanwhile, maintains that it was perfectly legal for her to make copies of the hard drive and that her actions have helped reveal vulnerabilities in the election system. The hard drive copies were analyzed by two people with connections to Lindell, a software developer and a former cybersecurity strategist. They put together a series of reports alleging the update had led to the deletion of important election records, and revealed security weaknesses in the ballot tabulation machines. The reports have been reviewed by experts who say they fail to actually show what they allege.
What the reports do show is that there can be a security risk to the ballot tabulation machines, but only if someone has physical access to the machines — which are only accessible to authorized individuals who have undergone background checks and have access to the locked area where the machines are located, and who have access to the passwords — as Peters is alleged to have allowed.
“In general, it’s nearly impossible to make a modern Windows computer secure against somebody who has physical access to the machine,” Robert Graham, a cybersecurity expert who had reviewed Peters’s reports, said in an email.
After the leak, the Mesa County district attorney began an investigation into the alleged security breach, as did federal investigators with the FBI, who later raided the homes of Peters, Wood and two other individuals. This January, a grand jury was tasked with considering the findings of the DA’s investigation. Peters announced she was running for secretary of state the following month, but in March, the grand jury indicted Peters on 10 counts, including criminal impersonation, attempt to influence a public servant, and identity theft. If found guilty of all charges, Peters could be sentenced to up to 28 years in jail and face $2.7 million in fines. She has no plans to suspend her secretary of state campaign.
Tina Peters received two full standing ovations at the Mesa County Republican Assembly last month. The only other person who garnered such widespread support was Rep. Lauren Boebert, the gun-toting, pro-Trump freshman member whose district includes Mesa County. (Boebert declined to speak with me for this story but had previously released a statement supporting the district attorney’s investigation.) In the world of Big Lie believers and the far right, Peters has become one of a small cast of folk heroes. And while she’s the one facing criminal charges, the biggest names in the Big Lie circuit, such as Lindell and Bannon, are more than happy to use her story to further their own ambitions. Following the symposium, Peters went into hiding for a month with Lindell’s help and did not return to Mesa County until mid-September.
Meanwhile, the county commissioners have done their best to clean up the mess on their hands. To try to restore trust in the election process ahead of an election last fall, the commissioners implemented additional verification measures: They hired Clear Ballot, another certified election equipment vendor and Dominion’s chief competitor, to re-count all the ballots that were run through the Dominion machines. And then they did a hand count. Neither count showed major discrepancies — the Dominion counts were accurate. The commissioners are also in the process of anonymizing all ballots in order to upload them online so that voters can verify the vote totals themselves. They’re even planning to refurbish the room where election equipment is stored to have bigger windows and allow election-watchers a better view of the counting process, according to McInnis.
“This thing has cost this little county at least $1 million. It’s going to be $1 million-plus, and we haven’t turned up one fraudulent vote. Not one,” McInnis said. The bulk of the cost came from replacing the equipment, implementing the additional safeguards, personnel, and diverting resources from other departments, according to McInnis. For context, that represents roughly a third of the county clerk’s office’s entire annual budget for 2022.
Yet none of those efforts have swayed Peters or her followers, who are still suspicious of the election equipment in Mesa County, despite the fact that Trump won the county in 2020 by 28 points.
“To my chagrin, it has not appeased hardly anybody,” said Cody Davis, another county commissioner.
At the GOP Assembly, multiple Republican party delegates expressed doubt and distrust in the election system and praised Peters. Two individuals who refused to give me their names told me Peters is a “hero.”
“My gut tells me, ‘Why would anybody in their right mind put themselves through what she’s put herself through just to put herself through it?’” said Melissa Anchondo, who was attending the assembly. “I think she’s innocent. I think she’s great. I hope people can start to realize what’s going on.”
“There’s an awful lot of questions, and I think if you ask most of the people here I’ll bet most would say they don’t believe the election was fair,” said David Dearborn, a delegate at the assembly.
One of the delegates who refused to give me her name said, “She is a hero and she’ll go down in Colorado history as being a hero for all the voters against the corruption of Dominion voting machines.”
Kevin McCarney is possibly the most Republican man I have ever met. In the course of our one-hour conversation, most of which was focused on Peters, McCarney managed to get in comments about his belief in the Second Amendment, his anti-abortion views, and make a dig at soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. As chair of the GOP in Mesa County, a county that hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1964, McCarney said he has sometimes been accused of being “too conservative.” But even he has been frustrated by what Peters did.
“I don’t like being a babysitter, and that’s what I’ve been the last six months because of the Tina situation,” McCarney said.
There are a lot of Republicans in Mesa County — this is, after all, the region of the country that elected Boebert, one of the most conservative and bombastic members of Congress. Nearly every elected official I spoke to for this story, including the county commissioners, the candidate running to replace Peters as clerk, and the county treasurer (who was tasked with helping run last year’s election after Peters was stripped of her duties) was a Republican. All of these stalwart supporters of the GOP have been forced to reckon with the outcome of her actions.
In a place like this, the Republican primary for many positions is essentially the general election. That was the case in 2018, when Peters, then a local businesswoman, beat out Gross, a 10-year veteran of the clerk’s office, to win the GOP nomination for county clerk, securing the job.
Her first year in office was relatively uncontroversial, but in 2020, after 574 uncounted ballots were discovered in a drop box for an election the previous fall, a recall effort against Peters was launched. The recall effort — backed by several former employees of the clerk’s office, which had seen three-quarters of its staff resign under Peters — failed to get enough signatures to prompt a vote, but the Colorado secretary of state did order an election observer to report on the clerk’s office.
Many of Peters’s GOP colleagues forgave her for that incident, telling me “mistakes happen.” But they weren’t as forgiving of the alleged decision to allow an unauthorized person to essentially hack the voting system. McCarney said it has caused tension among Republicans, between those who support Peters and believe there was fraud and those who don’t.
“We have a division where we shouldn’t have division right now,” McCarney said. “I don’t care if you hate one another, we’re Republicans and we need to band together in this election. There are people here who have drunk the Kool-Aid, as I say, and their hatred is palpable toward anybody who disagrees with them.”
It’s also forced Republican representatives to bear heavy critiques from their own team. Davis, the Mesa County commissioner, told me his voicemail was full of messages from angry voters. He suspects that most of them, the most threatening ones, come from people out of state, as they came in after his contact information was shared publicly by Lindell and because the individuals who have come out to voice their frustration in person have largely been polite.
“This is what I signed up for,” Davis said. “I enjoy engaging with people. When I can get people to a room or a coffee table, I can actually have a good rational conversation with people. It’s the people who won’t return my phone calls, who don’t want to listen to me, who just email me. They’re interested in a narrative, not in the truth.”
Of course, Mesa County is not made up exclusively of Big Lie believers, and elected officials have received plenty of criticism from constituents who think the efforts taken to appease those who believe there was voter fraud are a waste of time and money. McInnis showed me an anonymous letter calling him “a disgrace and an embarrassment” for not removing Peters from office. (As an elected official, Peters cannot be removed from office by the county commissioners.)
The turmoil Peters’s actions have caused for her fellow partisans demonstrates why Republicans, too, ought to be wary of the potential for a wave of election truthers being elected to office this fall. While it may initially appease the base, having an elected official who believes in the Big Lie can easily go south, helping those who stand to profit from the ongoing erosion of electoral trust. Having someone “on the inside” provides profiteers like Bannon an opportunity for access and a source for red meat to throw to their audience. For everyone else, including Republicans, it’s a disaster.
There are still some questions left unanswered in the Tina Peters story. One of the bigger ones is who exactly helped her make the copy of the hard drive. If the man using the identity of Gerald Wood was in fact not Wood, who was he? There are some theories that have been floated, but as of right now we can’t say conclusively.
Another pressing question is what will happen to Peters herself. For now, she’s awaiting trial for the charges laid against her and may face more charges out of the federal investigation. She’s currently facing another court challenge from the secretary of state to remove her from overseeing another election — this time the 2022 midterms. She was given a contempt of court citation for allegedly recording a hearing in a case against her deputy clerk. And when police tracked her down in a local bagel shop to execute a search warrant for that iPad, she allegedly resisted, leading to her being placed in handcuffs and donkey-kicking a cop — so she also faces charges for obstruction of a peace officer. And then there are the multiple ethics complaints filed against her for raising money to cover legal fees and accepting gifts in the form of travel and housing from Lindell.
Peters is still running for secretary of state. And last weekend, she attended the state Republican Assembly, receiving 61 percent of the votes.
Big Lie proponents are currently running for secretary of state, governor and Congress. They’re running for school boards, election boards and county clerks. Meanwhile, veteran election officials have been resigning in droves thanks to the death threats and intimidation lobbed at them by those who believe they were complicit in a stolen election. Peters’s story is unique, but it might not be for long.