The 2023 La Plata County Coordinated Election in November went “beautifully” by Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Lee’s account.
Turnout started slow, but by the end of the night on Nov. 7, it was evident there was more voter participation than she had expected.
But when Democratic and Republican canvass representatives Gregory Westerwick and Shelli Shaw met with Lee to certify the election results, Shaw refused to sign and certify the results at the last minute.
Lee said she and her staff were “heartbroken.”
Shaw told Lee she didn’t have an issue with how Lee ran the local elections. However, Shaw took issue with how Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold selected election races and ballots to audit.
The process in question is called a “risk limiting audit,” in which Colorado county clerks have practiced since 2017. The Secretary of State directs the county clerk and canvassers to pull specific ballots and send them to the SOS office for validation.
Shaw participated in the audit, and while that was underway, she didn’t raise any concerns, Lee said. When the time came to actually sign off on the official election results, thus certifying them, Shaw refused.
Lee said Shaw took issue with the Secretary of State auditing the pulled ballots instead of having Lee do so herself.
“I disagree with the clerk being the one to select one (ballot),” Lee said. “I’m running the election. I could be on the ballot. If I was the one selecting it, the community might even feel more skeptical.
“‘This one person is running them and now is going to select the ballots that are going to be audited? It just doesn’t make sense to me,” she added.
Shaw, who is also the La Plata County Republican Party chair, did not respond to a written request for comment.
On Monday ahead of the certification, Lee was already aware of a letter being circulated by Colorado GOP Ballot and Election Security Committee Chairman Ron Hanks urging county canvass boards not to certify Nov. 7 election results.
The letter regurgitates the same groundless accusations of a “rigged” election touted by former U.S. President Donald Trump, who currently faces four federal indictments, two of which are related to election conspiracies he has peddled (the Fulton County, Georgia and Washington, D.C. election subversion indictments, the latter colloquially known as ‘Jan. 6.’).
“Nothing has changed to make elections more accurate and transparent, and the canvass board has been made irrelevant. So why should any Patriot certify such a rigged system?” Hanks’ letter says.
Lee said she had answered questions by both party canvass boards on Monday and had heard no complaints until it was time to certify the election.
Although Shaw refused to certify the results, Westerwick provided his signature.
Lee signed off on the results as well, and two signatures are enough to certify the results of the election, she said.
She said Shaw had asked to visit the clerk’s office to witness the election process. That process includes ballots being collected and delivered to the clerk’s office and then scanned into ballot software, bipartisan election judges validating voter signatures, as well as ballots being opened so that votes are anonymously recorded.
Lee gave Shaw two separate opportunities to stop by when the election process with bipartisan volunteer election judges would be in full swing, but Shaw never showed up.
Lee said in her 27-year-long career, she has never had a canvass representative refuse to sign off on election results until now.
But to Lee and to Griswold, who joined Durango and La Plata County officials and community leaders at the Durango Chamber of Commerce on Thursday to discuss state efforts to support small businesses and the state of elections in Colorado, Shaw’s refusal to certify the results is another in a long line of actions taken to hamper election processes across the country.
In the November elections, Republican canvass representatives in five other Colorado counties in addition to La Plata County also refused to certify election results, she said.
The 2020 Presidential Election has long been settled. President Joe Biden defeated Trump by 306-232 in the Electoral College with a 4-point margin in the popular vote, according to the Pew Research Center. But baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and about elections since then are still abound in Colorado and the nation.
“If you have questions, if you have doubts, I’m super easy to find,” Lee said. “ … I will not back down from these people. 2020 was terrible. It was a really, really hard year … But we did it. And we did it with integrity. Our elections are accurate.”
She issued similar rebuffs against false conspiracy theories, predominantly spread by members of the Republican Party, in April last year.
At the Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Griswold said Colorado has not been immune to “The Big Lie” – the false claim the 2020 Presidential Election was “rigged” against and “stolen” from Trump – and other election conspiracy theories.
“One-third of county clerks have stepped down or retired since 2020,” she said. “And part of it is natural. And part of it is you work around the clock while people are threatening your lives. And maybe you don’t want to sign up for that.”
Outside of vitriol, county clerks face nonstop lawsuits and nonstop efforts to counter unfounded conspiracies, including streams of petty Colorado Open Records Act requests.
Even school board elections across the state have served as battlegrounds for culture wars between “extremist candidates and … reasonable Republicans and Democrats,” Griswold said.
Lee said keeping up with tertiary elections such as school board elections is straining on her office, and Griswold said other Colorado clerks have said the same.
More funding and resources are needed to help county clerks keep up.
The state is exploring how to reimburse counties for administrating elections, Griswold said. But some questions, like where the funding would come from, need to be worked out.
“The state is going to be giving more money to the counties,” she said. “We are changing how we are doing election reimbursements starting in the general (election) next year. Prior, it was based on a per-voter basis. And now it’s going to be on raw costs.”
But the Colorado Legislature is torn on how to fund the reimbursements.
“I am very concerned that the legislature is indicating that my office will pay for it, and that means small businesses are going to pay for it,” Griswold said. “My office is 98% funded by business fees. We’ve been able to maintain fees very low. Businesses go through a lot. So it’s something we’re concerned about.”
She said her office is asking the Colorado Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee to fund elections through the state legislature’s general fund, which means all taxpayers will contribute to paying for their elections.
But if elections will continue to be funded through the SOS office, “it’s 925,000 business owners paying for it,” Griswold said.