How a rural Colorado county became an epicenter of Trump’s big lie

First an election official erred. Then Trump’s IT squad arrived. Then the false claims, conspiracies, stolen data and denials ensued.

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SOURCEIndependent Media Institute
Image Credit: MCKENZIE LANGE/Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

Colorado’s southwestern Mesa County is filled with desert lore. It’s also home to one of 2020’s stranger false stolen election narratives that keeps resounding like echoes in its canyons but offers lessons for 2022’s general election.

Tina Peters, Mesa County’s Clerk, was not a cultish election denier immediately before or after 2020’s presidential election. She did not make any accusations that her voting system’s computers had been secretly sabotaged when Sandra Brown, Mesa County’s back-office election manager, mistakenly double-counted 20,000 ballots in late October 2020—a procedural error during preprocessing ballots that Brown repeated in Mesa County’s municipal elections in April 2021.

But soon after April 2021’s elections, where a slate of conservatives who skipped a candidate forum all lost, the first of what became a parade of pro-Donald Trump, self-proclaimed election IT experts began telling Peters about anomalies with her county’s voting system computers. The anomalies were the same clichés about illegal voters and forged totals that had been put forth by Trump diehards in other states. Except the allegations were dressed up as statistics and technicalities. Peters, a businesswoman turned public official, was more than impressed.

As March 2022 indictments by Mesa County District Attorney Daniel Rubenstein, a Republican, and a recent New Yorker profile recount, Peters used a standard update of election software in late April 2021 to make unauthorized copies of her election system’s hard drives, software, and data. The apparent goal was gathering intelligence to show that the technology—made by Dominion Voting Systems—could not be trusted to produce accurate vote counts.

Trump’s lawyers and partisan IT specialists had made copies of computer drives, software and data in December 2020 in Antrim County, Michigan, after a former state GOP leader turned state judge allowed it. The copies, of another Dominion system, were not to be shared. But they were soon leaked in Trump circles.

That effort, nonetheless, produced no evidence for any of Trump’s failed post-election lawsuits. Still, one day after January 6, 2021’s pro-Trump insurrection, some of the same data miners went to Coffee County, Georgia. There, an election official let them copy their Dominion system’s drives, software and 2020 data. Members of this loose cadre of IT experts showed up in Mesa County in late April—several weeks after back-office manager Brown again erred in using a computer as it was compiling vote subtotals in its municipal elections.

What happened next in Mesa County gets complex. It also reveals how a rare but recurring trend among a handful of local election officials—mistakes with setting up or using their system’s computers—can be exploited by partisans who claim that invisible forces are secretly stealing votes if their candidates lose.

In every cycle, there are some election officials who do not properly set up or use these computers—errors that usually are caught and corrected, but initially produce incorrect election results. This trend has been overlooked in the press coverage of the interstate plot by Trump’s IT gurus to steal election software and 2020 data.

The operational problems, however, are among the findings by the Independent Media Institute’s Voting Booth project, which has co-written a forthcoming guide about how election systems work. The co-author is Duncan Buell, a computer scientist who has studied voting systems, software, and data for more than a decade, and was an election official in Richland County, South Carolina, home to the state’s capital, Columbia. These errors recurred in each cycle that he studied.

In 2020’s general election, the programming, and operational mistakes were few and far between. Nonetheless, the errors that Trump’s IT squads seized upon—errors that were corroborated by post-election inquiries by other government bodies—helped fuel the lie that the presidential election was stolen.

Moreover, some of the election workers who made these mistakes—such as Mesa County’s Brown—and their elected superior—such as Peters—then fell under the spell of Trump’s conspiratorial IT squad—producing fodder for more false claims.

These trends—mistakes with programming or using election computers and rogue officials who abuse the public trust by making unfounded claims—offer warnings before 2022’s general election. Many 2020 election-deniers are candidates seeking state and federal office this fall. A few already have shown in their primaries that they will attack the process and technology if they fear they may lose.

Before 2020’s election, virtually all of the members of Trump’s IT squads did not know much about voting system computers or election administration safeguards. But they eagerly presented their credentials and claimed, that election computers had been hijacked, and, moreover, that no Dominion system should be trusted. Their unproven accusations became, and remain, fixtures in Trump circles.

“It wasn’t just Colorado,” said Walter Daugherity, a recently retired University of Texas lecturer in computer science and engineering, on an August 22 televised panel sponsored and hosted by Mike Lindell, a Trump ally who has spent millions to promote the stolen election fiction and whose actions are under investigation by federal authorities. “Everywhere across the country that had a Dominion trusted build [software] upgrade had the same thing happen.”

Daugherity was one analyst who received Mesa County’s pilfered data. He and Jeff O’Donnell, an IT analyst whose moniker in Trump circles is “the Lone Raccoon,” co wrote a series of reports concluding that Mesa County’s computers mysteriously allowed 20,346 presidential ballots to be counted twice. The double counting was not the fault of election officials, specifically back-office election manager Brown, they wrote, positing that an “external trigger,” “signal,” “software algorithm” or “pre-programming” had caused “unexpected voting patterns.”

Their speculation was one of many similar pronouncements in Trump circles. They accused Dominion of complicity in a scheme that would be illegal, if it were true.

“The report made claims which, if true, would indicate a crime was committed related to election fraud,” Mesa County District Attorney Rubenstein said via email on August 25. “I stand by the investigation that we conducted and am confident that there is no evidence of a crime being committed.”

Inside one disinformation bubble

Mesa County was among a handful of counties across America’s 8,000-plus election jurisdictions where Trump allies discovered glitches in administering the 2020 election. The glitches, which produced incorrect initial vote counts, were signs that Trump lost due to a vast conspiracy, they asserted.

That narrative, which continues today, ignores the most banal explanation of what happened in Mesa County and in jurisdictions such as Antrim County, Michigan. In both locales, county election officials erred with setting up or using their voting system’s computers, mistakes that initially were not noticed but were later caught and corrected.

The operational errors were recorded by the system’s computers, which keeps logs of every action—from ballot paper jams to vote counts. The errors were confirmed by other evidence, such as, in Mesa County, police investigators reconstructing the mistakes on the same equipment, parsing video footage from security cameras in the room where they occurred and interviewing witnesses. But conspiracy minded Trumpers, including O’Donnell and Daugherity, went looking for incongruities in computer logs and vote count databases, which, they said, masked programming that reassigned votes from Trump to other presidential candidates.

“The findings in this report were prepared by the authors as consultants to the legal team representing Tina Peters, the Mesa County Clerk,” the executive summary of their March 19, 2022 report said. “The findings provide evidence of unauthorized and illegal manipulation of tabulated vote data during the 2020 General Election and 2021 Grand Junction Municipal Election. Because of this evidence, which led to the vote totals for those elections being impossible to verify, the results and integrity of Mesa County’s 2020 General Election and the 2021 Grand Junction Municipal Election are in question.”

Among the incongruities they cited are batches of ballots that were not sequentially numbered in a results database. That can occur, several election experts explained, when batches of ballots with sloppy ink marks (made by voters) are detected by the software and set aside until the voter’s intent is determined. That process, called adjudication, is done in Colorado in the presence of political party observers. The batches are added to the database after the voter intent issues are resolved. (It was at this step where Brown failed to correctly use the system’s computers).

The Mesa County prosecutor took the duo’s report seriously and investigated. On May 19, 2022, Rubenstein sent a 24-page letter to Mesa County Commissioners and the Grand Junction City Council summarizing the investigation and debunking the vote-padding claims in the most pedestrian way. Two initial miscounts had occurred. The first was in 2020’s general election. The second was in municipal elections in April 2021. Both were “caused by direct action of the former Back Office Election Manager Sandra Brown.”

Investigators found that Brown had stopped and then restarted the computer during the adjudication process, including replacing one computer—without resetting the system. Brown did not call the vendor for assistance, the county prosecutor’s letter said. She was confused, tried to fix things, and erred—essentially double-counting votes at this stage in the process. Election judges from political parties witnessed this, as did an overhead video camera.

“No evidence exists that would indicate that Ms. Brown had any nefarious or criminal motive in those actions, but rather appears to have been trouble-shooting problems in the flow of the adjudication process,” Rubenstein wrote.

Human error in configuring and running election computers also sparked stolen election allegations in Antrim County, Michigan. There, the initial results in the conservative northern Michigan county were incorrect because one contest had been omitted on the ballots when configuring the system’s computers. Nobody caught the error until suspicious vote totals surfaced on Election Night. (Because one race was left out, votes were assigned to the wrong candidate in a tabulation spreadsheet, essentially bumping Trump votes down one line, where they were assigned to Joe Biden.)

In both counties, Trump supporters said that the entire state’s election apparatus was corrupt and demanded that the state’s certified results be thrown out. Beyond such hyperbole, a key observation emerges. Trump’s self-declared election experts were not looking at, nor may not even be aware of, the array of data sets, election records and administrative protocols that catch and correct the errors that occur. In Mesa County, for example, the district attorney’s report made this point.

“These actions were verified to have been done by her [Brown] through video evidence, corroboration of records, audit of randomly selected ballot images [created by ballot scanners], interviews with witnesses and experts, and recreation of certain scenarios using a test environment and prove that the conclusions of Report 3 [O’Donnell’s and Daugherity’s report] are incorrect claims of what may have occurred,” Rubenstein said. “At this time, no evidence suggests that these actions negatively impacted the election.”

In contrast, what the pro-Trump duo used as the basis for their inquiry—analyses built on Peters’ pilfered computer drives—is a thinner evidence base.

The pair, who were reached by email after their August 22 presentation at Mike Lindell’s “Moment of Truth Summit,” sent a rebuttal to Rubenstein’s summery where they rejected numerous assertions and questioned the district attorney’s expertise, evidence, and methods. (Rubenstein also noted they had lied about interviewing 11 people who had been in the room when Brown messed up.)

When asked by this reporter why they did not mention the DA’s review in their presentation at Lindell’s August 2022 forum—where O’Donnell said, “There is still no evidence that this was ever or even could have been something that was done by the clerk at the time”—O’Donnell replied that the DA’s investigation was a sham and said that my questions were “insulting.”

“We did not mention the DA’s report because it is such a sloppy ‘investigation’ that it deserves no recognition other than derision,” the “Lone Raccoon” said. “It is sad to me that somebody who is a ‘national political reporter’ would blindly fall fort the propaganda put by a small-time DA instead of actually doing their own research. However, that seems to be the rule these days.”

“Doing their own research”

Perhaps my e-mail was too blunt when asking the pair if they were aware of other evidence that explained Brown’s incompetence (she was fired and faces charges related to the data breach); and what was their response to the D.A. saying they lied when they said they had talked to the party observers present (who spoke to police investigators) when Brown erred?

But I had done my “own research.” When reporting on the Cyber Ninjas’ review in Arizona in 2021, I had repeatedly seen the disinformation dynamic that I saw here. Partisans with forgone conclusions started to parse election records. Lacking prior experience in studying election systems, they did not understand where what they were seeing in the electronic records related to wider contexts and protocols. That didn’t stop them from putting forth doubts about the results. And I’d also heard about the duo’s missteps from a lifelong Republican and credible election data analyst.

Benny White, a former fighter pilot and lawyer who lives in Tucson, Arizona, has been an election observer and data analyst for the Arizona Republican party for years. He became a persona non-grata in Trump circles for analyses in early 2021 that found tens of thousands of ballots cast by otherwise loyal Republicans in the greater Phoenix area had not voted to re-elect Trump. (The voting patterns were found in the final spreadsheet of every vote cast in every race.)

Reached by phone, White said that the duo called him as they were parsing Mesa County’s tabulation-related databases. White recalled that he told them where their assumptions were mistaken, and what they were not considering because they were not familiar with election administration and safeguards that find and fix errors.

“These folks have no understanding or appreciation of election administration,” he said. “They’re looking at everything from a sterile, mechanistic perspective. There are problems that can be caused because of human interface in the system design where operators can make mistakes. And for that reason, I am always an advocate of having an independent body, whether it’s a knowledgeable person or a bipartisan group of overseers, that is present at all times to watch what’s going on and ask, ‘Why are you doing that?’”

For example, White recalled that the duo claimed that the county’s voting system “had done something nefarious because these ballots [during adjudication] weren’t all tabulated in sequence.” But that circumstance occurs if the voter’s intent on a ballot is in question, White said, in which case Dominion’s software “will hold that batch [of 1,000 ballots from] being included in the aggregate results… That was another thing that it seemed to me that Daugherity failed to understand.”

“He bases a lot of his conclusions on statistics, statistical analysis,” White said of Daugherity. “There have been single instances where he would tell me something, and I would say, ‘Walter, you’re not considering this other facet of what was going on in that particular election… You have to know more before you reach these conclusions.’”

Election administration is not simple. It takes years to understand election law, varieties in state rules and procedures, the voting system technology and all of the subsets of data created and compiled that add up to winners and losers. Trump’s IT squad might be forgiven for misunderstanding and misinterpreting what they saw, if they had been more humble and fair-minded. But they weren’t.

Their mindset is to create chaos and doubt, while claiming they are seeking the truth. The clearest evidence of that mindset is how they exploited human errors by election officials by not accurately contextualizing those mistakes, but repeatedly over claiming that an entire jurisdiction’s votes were suspect, and that the same election technology deployed nationwide must be rejected.

With scores of 2020 election-denying candidates running for state and federal office in 2022’s general election, this deceitful pattern is likely to recur.

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