The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Colorado county elections official Tina Peters is indicted in probe of alleged tampering with voting equipment

Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters speaks at a Dec. 1 rally in Grand Junction, Colo. (McKenzie Lange/Grand Junction Daily Sentinel/AP)
9 min

A county official in Colorado whose embrace of election-fraud conspiracy theories has made her a hero to election deniers nationwide has been indicted on state criminal charges stemming from her alleged efforts to secretly copy hard drives from Dominion Voting Systems equipment, officials said Wednesday.

Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters (R), who is now seeking the GOP nomination for Colorado secretary of state, is the first elections official to face criminal charges related to conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 election, experts said. She is accused not of fixing the election but of breaking the law as she sought to investigate whether someone else did.

Peters’s alleged actions, along with efforts by other election deniers to seek public office, are contributing to concern among experts about possible escalating risk to the nation’s voting systems. State or federal investigators have probed multiple alleged security breaches of election systems and equipment since Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential race, including some thought to be aided by elections-office insiders or right-wing conspiracy theorists.

In an 18-page indictment, a county grand jury accused Peters of sneaking someone who was not a county employee into secure areas of her office in May, before and during a manual update of Dominion voting machines known as a “trusted build.” She is accused of devising a scheme to allow that person to use a security badge assigned to another person.

Peters has been under investigation since August, when the data copied from Mesa County’s machines surfaced at a symposium held by the election denier and conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell.

An elections supervisor embraced conspiracy theories. Officials say she has become an insider threat.

Peters, 66, was charged Tuesday evening with 10 counts, seven of them felonies. They include conspiracy to commit criminal impersonation and attempting to influence a public servant, stemming in part from Peters’s alleged efforts to deceive state elections officials.

Her deputy, Belinda Knisley, was also indicted and was being held after her arrest Wednesday. Knisley’s lawyer, R. Scott Reisch, told The Washington Post, “We look forward to all the evidence being considered by a jury.”

Peters was in custody Wednesday afternoon, with bond set at $500,000.

In a statement, Peters claimed that the charges were a politically motivated attack meant to weaken her candidacy to become the state’s top elections official. The statement accused the district attorney, Daniel Rubinstein (R), of being a “never Trumper” and of allying himself with Democrats in “using legal muscle to indict political opponents during an election.”

She rejected a call from the leadership of the state GOP for “any Republican candidate who is indicted with felonies by a grand jury” to suspend their campaign.

Peters has previously said that she brought in a “consultant” to help her copy hard drives — a move she said was necessary to ensure that the trusted build did not erase files needed to fully investigate the 2020 election.

Photographs of confidential Dominion passwords that were taken during the trusted build were published online by Ron Watkins, a prominent purveyor of baseless claims. Watkins, who is running for an Arizona congressional seat, is perhaps best known for serving as the administrator of the 8kun anonymous message board that hosted posts by “Q” regarding the QAnon conspiracy theory. Watkins is not mentioned in the indictment and did not respond to a request for comment.

Doug Frank, a prominent conspiracy theorist, previously told The Post that he spoke to Peters in April about the upcoming trusted build, which he believed could delete data that was needed to prove the election had been rigged. He said he told her that she had a responsibility under federal law to preserve election records, including data from the machines. Frank said he had recommended someone he trusted to help her back up records.

“Nothing nefarious in any of this. Merely prudence,” Frank wrote in a text message to The Post on Wednesday.

The office of Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) had instructed county employees to back up their election records before the trusted build and provided instructions to do so. But such a backup “does not include anyone imaging the hard drive” of the election management software, according to the indictment.

In an interview Wednesday, Lindell said he didn’t know of Peters or the copied hard drives before the symposium. “Did I take her under my wing after the symposium? Darn right I did,” he said. The MyPillow chief executive, who has at times paid for Peters’s security and lawyers, pledged to help Peters and Knisley get out on bail. He called the charges a “scare tactic” aimed at silencing Peters.

On his nightly online show Wednesday, Lindell provided the name and chambers phone number of the judge who he said had set Peters’s bond. He urged listeners to call the judge to share their opinion about Peters having to spend the night in jail.

The indictment does not name Frank or Lindell.

Griswold’s office had told county clerks across Colorado that only certain people — county staffers, state officials and Dominion representatives who had undergone background checks — could attend the trusted build in May.

According to the indictment, Peters reached out to a county resident named Gerald Wood and told him she might need his help doing some contract IT work on Dominion machines. Wood then gave Knisley his Social Security number for a background check. He was given a security access badge on May 19, but was asked to return it before he left the office.

The security badge assigned to Wood was used to swipe into the elections department on May 23, two days before the trusted build — the same day a copy of the hard drives was made — and on May 25, the day the trusted build began. At the time, Peters told state officials that a man she introduced as Gerald Wood was an employee transitioning from the motor vehicle division in her office to elections, according to the indictment.

But Wood was never employed by Mesa County, according to county officials. And according to the indictment, Wood — who was subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury — was not present at the elections office on either May 23 or May 25. Peters faces a felony identity theft charge in connection with the use of Wood’s personal information.

The indictment does not say who allegedly posed as Wood and swiped his badge.

In a statement, Rubinstein and state Attorney General Phil Weiser (D) said their investigation continues and more people could be charged.

The criminal charges come after a state judge barred Peters from overseeing the county’s November 2021 election, finding that she breached and neglected her duties and was “untruthful” when she brought in an outsider to make copies of the Dominion hard drives.

Griswold is now asking a judge to bar Peters from overseeing the 2022 election in Mesa County.

In a statement Wednesday about the Peters indictment, Griswold said: “Officials tasked with carrying out elections do so in public trust and must be held accountable when they abuse their power or position.”

Peters also faces allegations that she used an iPad to videotape state court proceedings in early February and then lied to a judge when he asked her whether she had been recording.

When police served her with a search warrant for the iPad at a bagel shop in downtown Grand Junction on Feb. 8, video of her kicking and resisting went viral on social media.

On Feb. 14, Peters announced on a podcast hosted by Stephen K. Bannon — the influential conservative figure who served as a political strategist for Trump — that she would run for secretary of state.

The FBI confirmed last year that it was assisting in the investigation of the alleged security breach. A federal grand jury was convened, according to a subpoena for documents issued to Mesa County in September and obtained via a public records request. The status of that federal probe was unclear Wednesday, and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Colorado declined to comment.

Another Colorado clerk — Dallas Schroeder of Elbert County — has also admitted to making two copies of his county’s voting system hard drive. Schroeder said he gave one copy to his own attorney and another to an unidentified “private attorney.”

Griswold filed a lawsuit in February to force Schroeder to name the private attorney, retrieve the copies of the hard drives and provide copies of communications with non-county employees who assisted Schroeder in making the copies. She argued that Schroeder’s behavior had created “an ongoing risk that the copies of the voting system ... are being exploited by unknown actors to uncover system vulnerabilities that might be used to undermine voters’ confidence in Colorado’s secure elections.”

In court documents, Schroeder’s lawyer has said that he believes his actions were “authorized by law and appropriate under the circumstances to preserve election records of the November 2020 election.”

Elsewhere, the FBI has investigated allegations of an attempted breach of the election network in Lake County, Ohio, after a private laptop was plugged into the network in the office of a county commissioner. No sensitive data was obtained, only routine network traffic; that traffic was later circulated at the same Lindell conference as the data from Mesa County.

In Michigan, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) last month requested that state law enforcement officials investigate reports that an unnamed party had been allowed to access voting equipment in northern Roscommon County. In rural Cross Village Township in Emmet County, near Michigan’s northern tip, a woman who allegedly tried to marshal several people to copy voting machine data in January 2021 was charged with two felonies — including unauthorized access to a computer. She recently pleaded no contest to a single misdemeanor count of creating a disturbance.