County clerks reassure voters while watching for cyberattacks

Officials push back against fraud claims but stay alert for actual threats

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While local counties' clerks and recorders say they are still taking steps to unravel false claims of widespread election fraud two years after the 2020 presidential election and ahead of the June primaries, they are also on the lookout for potential cyberattacks after warnings from President Joe Biden that such attacks are increasingly likely.

“It’s definitely nerve-wracking, but something that we are starting to get used to,” Adams County Clerk and Recorder Josh Zygielbaum said. “It’s the world we live in now, and we do everything we can to protect the system and to protect ourselves and our workers and our voters.”

The cybersecurity threat level is similar to past elections, or the worst-case scenarios election offices have prepared for, metro area clerks said.

“There is no question right now, every agency is indicating that the risk of Russian initiated cyber security threats has increased,” Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder George Stern said.

But Stern said “long before we had internal threats to our elections,” cybersecurity and the security of election from foreign interference “has been top of mind,” Stern said. Regular probes from countries including Russia, Iran, North Korea and others are directed toward state and local election offices, looking for vulnerability in the system.

Clerks said their offices partner with homeland security, the FBI, and state and local departments to monitor cyberthreats.

“If something viable looks as if it’s surfacing, we are notified about it and we can respond,” Zygielbaum said. “We employ the most modern protection from a technology standpoint that there is out there.”

Staff go through cybersecurity training “every single election” regardless of how many times they have received it, Stern said. That helps staff recognize what attacks might look like. All equipment requires two-factor verification, and there is a paper trail for each ballot.

“That can prove accurate results, and a successful election,” Stern said.

Douglas County Clerk and Recorder Merlin Klotz declined to speak for this story. Klotz is one of several public officials who sued the secretary of state because of a software update the state conducted on county election equipment. The suit seeks to see if the update deleted any data, a claim the secretary of state’s office refuted in a motion to dismiss the suit.

Boosting transparency

The Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson County clerks said while they are working to mend relationships with voters who doubt election security, they emphatically believe those individuals are a small minority of the electorate.

“We still receive plenty of emails from people who believe the Big Lie,” Zygielbaum said.

Clerks said they receive form letters, copied-and-pasted arguments from people who appear to be local residents but also people outside their county borders.

“Just perpetuating the false narratives that the elections were fraudulent,” Zygielbaum said.

The letters come in waves. A spate of several in one day, followed by a lull.

“It’s important for our staff, for election judges, and for voters,” Stern said, “to understand that we are discussing conspiracy theories here and that the vast, vast majority of people in Colorado understand our elections are secure.”

Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder Joan Lopez emphasized the election system is not connected to the internet, and that she believes voters trust their local elections system.

“We have gone above and beyond to make sure that they are informed,” Lopez said.

Lopez estimated that people who doubt election security account for about 1% of Colorado’s population. That doesn’t mean offices have eased efforts to boost faith in U.S. elections.

County clerks' offices have expanded or created additional designated webpages to educate people about the life of a ballot and how local elections function. As “forensic audit” became a buzzword last year, Lopez said, the office tried to assuage people’s concerns by encouraging them to see the see the process firsthand.

“I’m telling you, once somebody goes through a tour, they really go ‘Wow, I can’t believe all you guys do,’” Lopez said.

When Stern encounters people who doubt election security, he says “I invite them in.”

“What I find is that they are convinced that something is wrong because they heard it from someone who said something about a report that had some data from somewhere,” Stern said.

During elections, the office offers “a tour of every single aspect of it while it’s happening,” Stern said.

“I personally lead them. We invite anyone in who wants to see the process up close,” Stern said.

Zygielbaum stresses that election equipment watching is conducted by bipartisan teams. Audits are performed during elections to ensure accuracy. They also host tours for anyone who wants one.

“We stick to the facts, and hopefully the truth will prevail,” Zygielbaum said.

Physical safety

Domestic threats toward election staff’s safety, stoked by conspiracies about a stolen election, have simmered down, clerks said, and numerous election related bills were introduced during the 2022 Colorado legislative session.

“We have heard from cowardly people sitting behind their computer screens over the course of the last year who are threating election workers — Colorado residents with families and kids — because of something they heard about election integrity and have no proof of,” Stern said. “It’s sick. It’s oftentimes illegal and we are always reporting it to law enforcement agencies, but it just needs to stop.”

Stern said his staff is as politically diverse as the bipartisan election judging teams who work during an election.

“They are Republicans, they are Democrats, they are unaffiliated members, and they are getting threats in equal numbers,” he said. “It is hard on morale. It is hard for us to get good applicants to want to be in this space.”

Stern said he could not confidently say if turnover in his office is attributable to threats, but that the majority of his office is committed to the job despite sometimes facing an intimidating climate.

“The more they hear from cowards, the more they want to stick with this work so that we aren’t letting the cowards win,” he said.

“We hear the noise,” Stern said, adding he staunchly believes threatening people are a fringe minority in the state and are not representative of Colorado voters.

“Someone threatening your life resonates a lot more loudly than the five people who told you you’re doing a good job,” he said.

Lopez watched with relief as the Vote Without Fear Act was passed by the state legislature. In the November 2020 election, two men came to the ballot box at county offices, filming voters who came to drop off their ballot. One of them openly carried a firearm.

“He was very hostile any time somebody approached him and said what are you doing,” Lopez said of her staff’s attempts to speak with the men.

“Every voter that came in had to pass this gentleman,” she said.

With no laws prohibiting his conduct, staff’s hands were tied, Lopez said.

House Bill 22-1086, signed into law on March 30, now prevents someone from openly carrying a firearm within any polling location or within 100 feet of a ballot drop box while an election is underway.

The Adams County Clerk and Recorder's Office is undergoing construction to heighten security.

Until now people seeking services from elections staff had to go inside the election office. Now the county is installing window desks similar to what people might see at the DMV, Zygielbaum said.

Closer to Election Day, Zygielbaum will wear a bulletproof vest. His election staff also underwent active shooter training.

“That was a direct response to 2020,” he said.

Zygielbaum said he expects active shooter training to become an annual practice in collaboration with the Adams County Sheriff’s Office. He called the process eye-opening for his office. Most his employees have been in elections for most their career.

“This is something that is new to all of us. We used to be able to go to work and run elections under the assumption that we would all go home at the end of the day. And that’s changed,” he said. “Something that is supposed to be the foundation for our American institution is under attack.”

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