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Follow KUNC's coverage of the 2022 midterm election, and get results on all the state races here.

Colorado's election workers are taking surprising steps to cope with threats, stress and scrutiny

Ballot processing equipment at the Denver clerk and recorders' office.
Scott Franz
Ballot processing equipment at the Denver clerk and recorders' office.

Colorado’s election workers are on high alert. Threats have caused many of the state’s county clerks to reinforce their offices with new locks, walls and bulletproof glass. And some are taking other surprising steps to keep themselves safe despite new laws meant to protect them.

Josh Zygielbaum, the clerk and recorder in Adams County, puts on a bulletproof vest each morning before he goes to work.

“I wear it under, you know, as the abundance of caution,” he said Monday. “And it is essentially just a precaution, really, just like any security measure that would be taken.”

Clerks around the state started taking these dramatic new security measures about two years ago, when election workers faced threats stemming from false claims the 2020 election was stolen or tampered with.

A handful of candidates in Colorado then made unfounded allegations about voting irregularities in this year’s primary election and requested recounts, which confirmed their losses.

As the tense climate surrounding elections drags on, Zygielbaum says it’s starting to distract from his main job of running a free and fair election.

When the bar is perfection to make sure the election is done right, that really needs to be our focus,” he said. “And when we're focused on our personal security rather than just the election security as well, you know, it takes a little bit of focus away from what we should be doing.”

The FBI issued a warning at the start of the election about increased potential for election threats and disruptions.
Scott Franz
The FBI issued a warning at the start of the election about increased potential for election threats and disruptions.

Zygielbaum is a Democrat, but the threats and misinformation are affecting Republicans, too. Carly Koppes is the clerk and recorder in Weld County. She says the climate is making it hard to hire election workers. And many of the people stepping forward to fill the gaps are coming with an agenda.

We've seen already a lot of people trying to advocate (for people in) election denial groups to apply for open positions in elections offices,” she said. “But we're also seeing them trying to become election judges and especially election watchers.”

Koppes said 35 of the poll watchers she approved to observe the June primary election had ties to election denier groups. And an exodus of election workers isn’t just happening in Colorado. An entire elections department quit suddenly this fallin a small town in the Texas Hill Country because they were fed up with harassment and online threats.

Back in Adams County, Zygielbaum says his staff is pushing forward. But they’re having to do things they’ve never had to do before.

We've done active shooter trainings,” Zygielbaum said. “We've had very long conversations about, you know, just general awareness and complacency, a heightened awareness when you're leaving your house or leaving the office, you know, the ways in which to see if somebody is following you when you're driving.”

On Wednesday, one of Zygielbaum’s election workers discovered a ballot inside a drop box with a suspicious powder in it.

He said initial tests revealed it was some sort of cooking substance, but the state is looking into it further.

Meanwhile, his office is doing more than playing defense. Zygielbaum is hoping the daily tours he offers to the public builds trust and starts to turn the tide against a flurry of misinformation. He says the skeptics who take the tour often leave with fewer concerns.

“And if someone wants to come in and really get involved with the election. Come on. You're welcome. We hire hundreds of workers for every single election,” he said.

Colorado has new rules this year to protect election workers. State lawmakers passed tougher criminal penalties for people who threaten election workers. It’s illegal to openly carry a gun near polling places. And the state is spending a million dollars to help clerks protect against insider threats.

Zygielbaum says the changes are giving him peace of mind.

You already couldn't, you know, threaten a vote center or attack a vote center,” he said. “Those laws were already there. But this gives it some specific teeth around the elections and that helps out.”

Dozens of clerks are also banding together to try to get ahead of the misinformation that lead to the threats. In Eagle County on the West Slope, county clerk Regina O'Brien is monitoring social media posts. She says some are wrongfully urging people to camp out at ballot boxes to monitor them for security reasons.

“There's no evidence of ballot box tampering in Colorado,” she said last month. “Individuals do not need to monitor the ballot boxes for security. All Colorado 24-hour ballot drop boxes have always been required to have round-the-clock video surveillance. And any issues that might arise would be captured on video and dealt with appropriately.

This election season kicked off with a warning from the FBI about Colorado being one of a handful of states they fear is more prone to election tampering. The state’s bipartisan county clerks association says so far, there haven’t been any major disruptions or reasons to worry about the integrity of the vote.

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.