Colorado election officials continue to face threats as lawmakers pursue new protections
Election workers in Adams County are putting on bulletproof vests before they head to the office. More than 150 miles away in Salida, the clerks in the Chaffee County clerk and recorder's office now talk to residents through bulletproof glass and walls.
“It's like it's so beyond the pale, the craziness,” Chaffee County Clerk Lori Mitchell said last week after describing the range of threats and misinformation she and her staff are still facing following the 2020 election. “I think that's why it's hard to combat back because it's like, ‘Oh my God, what the heck is going on?’”
Mitchell said the threats against her office started on social media. They also targeted a worker at a ballot processing machine company that has been the focus of unfounded claims of fraud.
“We did all the proper channels of reporting (the threats) to the sheriff and to the FBI and whatever we had to do,” she said. “But it still was very unnerving for me and my family.”
Things got worse last summer. Mitchell was driving about a block away from her office in Salida, a small town on the banks of the Arkansas River surrounded by sprawling ranches and mountains. She said she noticed something alarming.
“Out of the corner of my eye I saw somebody lay their right hand over their left arm and pull what looked like a (gun) trigger to me,” she said. “And so I ducked in my car. And it was a squirt gun and it splashed on my window and I was just really worked up about it for a number of days.”
The events have been so troubling, Mitchell said she was considering not running for reelection this year.
“I mean, it's upsetting. I thought, ‘I don't want to live like this,’” she said. “It’s bigger than me. And I'm not going to back down because then they win. I'm going to stand up and do my job and I'm going to do it well, and that's what I can guarantee for the citizens of my county.”
More than 100 miles away at the state Capitol, lawmakers are trying to help.
Democrats are pursuing a package of bills to ban the open carry of guns at polling places and create new criminal penalties for people who threaten election workers.
“One in three U.S. election officials feel unsafe on the job,” Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, said this month. “One in six reported being threatened because of their work. Once again, these are people who are ensuring that we have free and fair elections and that believe in this country and our public servants, they are being threatened for doing their jobs.”
A bill she plans to sponsor called the Election Officials Protection Act would make it a crime to “intimidate, threaten, coerce or otherwise undermine election officials as they perform their official duties.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, is sponsoring the bill that aims to ban the open carry of firearms near polling places and ballot drop boxes. The goal is to both protect election workers and prevent voter intimidation.
“The fact that we need to and bring this bill in 2022 is a sign of the times, but also it's a sign that this will not be tolerated because this is not who we are as a nation,” Bacon said.
The bill is advancing quickly with the support of Democrats. Republicans, like Rep. Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, are fighting it.
“Frankly I fear gun-free zones and this bill creates that,” Neville said.
Republicans say the state’s menacing laws are already protecting voters and election workers.
Back in Salida, county clerk Lori Mitchell is not waiting for lawmakers to take action. Mitchell said she did not enjoy having to literally wall off her office, but the growing threats have made it necessary. She is also considering starting a website dedicated to fighting conspiracy theories and misinformation about elections in her county.
Mitchell also said she never thought her job would get this risky. She was a golf pro and a photographer before she became a county clerk in 2014. She said the first six years were rewarding as she helped people get marriage licenses and ran elections with little controversy.
Now she thinks the threats against election workers will be a tough issue for lawmakers to solve.
“But I'm hoping somebody can help us get an answer, and it's obviously not just going to be one thing, it's going to be a multi-pronged approach to try to make us safe,” she said.