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Indicted and rebuked, Colorado secretary of state candidate pushes Trump's false election fraud claims

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DENVER -- Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters continues to outraise her opponents in Colorado’s GOP secretary of state primary despite being indicted on seven felony charges related to election fraud, called on by her own party to suspend her campaign and barred by a judge from overseeing her county’s elections this year.

Peters’ main opponent in Tuesday's primary is moderate Republican Pam Anderson, a longtime election official and former Jefferson County clerk who rejects former President Donald Trump's false claims of a stolen election that Peters embraces. Anderson has raised nearly $107,000 since October, compared with $166,000 Peters raised since entering the race in February, according to financial disclosure reports from May 31.

This primary represents the latest chapter of a new fracturing within the GOP, a party torn between adherence to Trump-perpetuated claims of widespread voter fraud and those who reject those baseless claims. What's left is a tug-of-war between  pro-Trump, far-right loyalists candidates  and more traditional Republicans for GOP nominations in the primaries.

Colorado State Sen. Kevin Priola, the only Republican state legislator to co-sponsor a Democratic bill to bar anyone convicted of election fraud-related charges from running for office, said he believes Trump ‘s hold on the GOP may be “starting to slip away.”

“The question is: Is it happening quickly enough to the extent that rational, reasonable, fair-minded conservative Republicans can actually win primary elections.”

Peters’ claims that the 2021 Colorado municipal election results were “erased” and that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election also have implications beyond the GOP, according to politicians from both parties.

They damaged voters’ confidence in the state’s election process, said Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who is running for reelection and is unopposed in her primary.

More: In 2022 midterms, a new 'Big Lie' battleground: secretary of state elections

“We are seeing the lies being internalized and many people losing faith in our democratic institutions,” said Griswold. “The failed attempt in 2020 to steal the presidency has not stopped. It’s just shifted to 2022 and 2024.”

She also said Peters has “become a national figure in the push of disinformation and is a risk to American elections and Colorado elections.”

An indicted clerk runs for secretary of state

Although Peters is a strong supporter of Trump, Peters has not received an endorsement from the former president.

In an exclusive interview, Peters said, “I don't seek out endorsements. If someone wants to endorse me, that is their privilege.” A Trump spokesperson had no comment on whether an endorsement for Peters is forthcoming.

Peters is also part of the America First coalition, a conservative group of GOP candidates around the country promoting Trump’s false claims of election fraud who are running for the secretary of state. In most states, the secretary's office oversees the running of elections.

More: Republican county clerk indicted by Colorado grand jury over election tampering

The indicted clerk said that she visited Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in May to attend a fundraiser for Arizona secretary of state GOP candidate Mark Finchem (who has won Trump’s endorsement) and for an advance screening of a film by conservative director Dinesh D’Souza. Peters said she has not discussed her run for secretary of state or shared concerns about the 2020 election results with Trump.

In addition to disputing the 2020 results, Peters said she believes voter information was “erased” from hard drives during the state’s municipal elections at the direction of  Griswold. Griswold’s spokeswoman said that before every election, county clerks like Peters are required to conduct routine software updates in which election records are erased from machines, but are first copied and preserved elsewhere.

Prosecutors say the Mesa County clerk also allegedly had someone copy hard drives from her county’s Dominion Voting election machines. Information from the equipment and passwords were later leaked, the lead prosecutor in Peters’ case said.

Peters said she no longer trusts the state’s voting system.

“Not while we’re using these (Dominion) machines. Not at all,” she said. “And not while we have the secretary of state (Griswold) that is allowing these malicious deletions of election records.”

What charges is Peters facing?

There is no trial date set for Peters, who is charged with committing seven felonies, including attempting to influence public servants, criminal impersonation, identity theft, and conspiracy.

She is accused of three misdemeanors for official misconduct, violation of election duties and refusing to follow orders imposed by the Colorado secretary of state. She is also facing legal action for a variety of other issues, including a dispute with her ex-husband over the deed to a Colorado home.

Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, center, reads the results from the first round of ballots for the 2020 presidential primary elections at the Mesa County election office in Grand Junction, Colo., on March 3, 2020. The county’s election equipment has been decertified and will have to be replaced following a security breach allegedly aided by Peters.
Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, center, reads the results from the first round of ballots for the 2020 presidential primary elections at the Mesa County election office in Grand Junction, Colo., on March 3, 2020. The county’s election equipment has been decertified and will have to be replaced following a security breach allegedly aided by Peters.

Given the complexity of the investigation, the judge is likely to wait another three or four months before asking Peters’ legal team to enter a plea so the case can be scheduled for trial, said Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein. That makes it unlikely a trial would begin before the general election in November.

Peters faces more than 20 years in prison if convicted.

Rubinstein suspects Peters’ team will opt for a defense that she chose the lesser of two evils by acting in response to a perceived threat to election security.

“In Colorado, choice of evils defenses are rooted in the idea that it was necessary as an emergency measure to commit that offense, and that there were not lawful options available,” he said.

More: Fact check: Joe Biden legally won presidential election, despite persistent contrary claims

“Given the timing of everything here, I think it will be difficult for Ms. Peters to present that as an effective defense.”

However, The indicted Mesa County clerk Peters expressed confidence in her legal team’s strategy.

“I have a really incredible legal team. They looked at the transcripts from the indictment and they laughed. They literally laughed.”

Moderate Republican county clerk battles Peters for GOP nomination

Peters’ GOP opponent, Pam Anderson, said she isn’t interested in a Trump endorsement. “There are things about the (former) president that I agree with . . . his position on elections is not one of them.”

A former Jefferson County and municipal clerk, Anderson rejects Trump’s rhetoric about the 2020 election. In Georgia’s contested race that year, Anderson participated in certifying the recount that confirmed the state for Democrat then-candidate Joe Biden.

Anderson has been endorsed by Griswold’s predecessor, former secretary of state Wayne Williams, who replaced Peters as a Mesa County elections official after she was barred from overseeing this year’s election.

Anderson said the secretary of state position is a professional job that should be devoid of “hyper partisan rhetoric.”

“I see it (as) important to bring professionals back to these offices and maintain that fair referee, not just for elections, but for the other operations as well,” Anderson said.

“I think it puts a lot of fuel on the fire of mistrust if you take such a polarizing position on either side of the aisle as an elected official.”

Incumbent secretary doubles down on re-election effort, state legislators push election security bill

Whoever clinches the GOP nomination in the primaries will go against Griswold on Nov. 8.

Griswold already had raised a record $2.67 million a month out from the June 28 Democratic primary, in which she’s unopposed.

Elected in 2018, Griswold is the first Democrat to win the office since 1963, beating then-incumbent Republican Wayne Williams 52.7% to 44.7%.

More: Trump had to know he was spreading 'Big Lie,' Jan. 6 committee member Jamie Raskin says

Griswold has backed a bill that would bar individuals convicted of election fraud-related charges from being on the ballot. With Peters’ trial date still up in the air, Democrats who control the state legislature are working to push the bill through before the general election.

The Colorado Republican Party has been vocal in its opposition to Peters’ campaign with only one GOP state senator – Priola – supporting the measure.

Republican lawmakers are hesitant to rally behind the proposed law because of the large number of voters who believe in the false claims and lies about election fraud, Priola said.

Without passage of the bill or a conviction in court, Peters remains on the ballot.

Griswold and other lawmakers acknowledge Peters as an influential candidate and strong opponent who continues to influence right-wing supporters to rally behind her.

“We're seeing across the nation, election officials embrace conspiracies and, ironically, becoming a security threat themselves,” Griswold said.

Like Griswold and Priola, state Rep. Susan Lontine, a Democrat, believes Peters’ actions have inspired others to buy in to the election fraud myth. She pointed to a recent incident in which an Elbert County clerk made two copies of the Dominion Voting System election server.

“What Tina Peters did is, she has allowed the Big Lie to have what people believe as some sort of basis in fact,” said Lontine. “And that's really hard to deal with because you can't run a bill to defeat that.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: GOP primary in Colorado has state candidate pushing Trump false claims