GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Just six weeks before the 2020 presidential election — game day for vote-counting bureaucrats — Tina Peters was so proud of her operation at the Mesa County clerk’s office that she invited a film crew in to show it off. There’s no chance of mishap here, she boasted.
“The Russians can’t hack into and start casting votes for someone,” she said, as a few in the office chuckled.
By May 2021, it was Ms. Peters, not the Russians, who had helped engineer an audacious breach of voting machines, according to an indictment charging her with seven felonies. Ms. Peters arranged to copy sensitive election software from county voting machines in an attempt to prove the 2020 presidential election was rigged, according to court records. Prosecutors said she committed identity theft and criminal impersonation, and violated the duties of her office in the process. Ms. Peters has pleaded not guilty.
The strange tale of Tina Peters — a once-ordinary public servant consumed by conspiracy theories and catapulted to minor stardom by believers — will take its next twist on Tuesday, when voters decide whether to make the indicted public official the Republican nominee for secretary of state, the top election official in Colorado. Polls are sparse in the primary race, but Ms. Peters is considered a contender.
Ms. Peters did not just stumble into the world of election conspiracy theories. A review of public statements and interviews with people involved in her case showed she was repeatedly assisted by a loose network of election deniers, some of whom worked alongside Donald J. Trump’s legal team to try to subvert the presidential election in 2020. They are still working to undermine confidence in elections today.
That network’s involvement is just one of several bizarre plot points in Ms. Peters’s case. The Mesa County breach involved a former surfer who impersonated a computer “nerd” and made a FaceTime call during the operation, reporting by The New York Times shows. Afterward, the crew shared their loot — images of voting machine data — at a conference streamed online, advertising the effort to thousands. On Friday, Ms. Peters told The Times that her congresswoman, Representative Lauren Boebert, “encouraged me to go forward with the imaging.”
A press officer for Ms. Boebert, a Republican, called the claim false.
Through it all, Ms. Peters has parlayed the episode into a national political profile on the right, speaking at events across the country where she is celebrated as a hero. Influential election deniers have come to her aid: Mike Lindell, the MyPillow executive who supports a stable of lawyers and researchers promoting bogus theories, says he has funneled as much as $200,000 to Ms. Peters’s legal defense. Others, including Patrick Byrne, a former Overstock executive, have run ads attacking her primary opponent.
In a statement to The Times, Ms. Peters declined to answer specific questions about the episode, citing pending litigation. In September, before Ms. Peters was indicted, her lawyer acknowledged that she had allowed “one non-employee” to copy hard drives, but argued that there was no rule or regulation against it, something the secretary of state’s office disputes.
In public appearances since, Ms. Peters has said she made the copies because she worried the voting machine company was going to delete computer systems that recorded the 2020 election and wanted to preserve records. She has been less forthcoming about how the material ended up online.
“The people want to know HOW our elections have been turned over to machines with no oversight, transparency or real security in any meaningful way,” Ms. Peters said in the statement.
Materials released in the Mesa County breach have been used to fuel the churn of misinformation about President Biden’s victory. Election experts say the episode also highlights a growing vulnerability in election security: the insider threat.
Since the Mesa County breach was made public, there have been more than a half-dozen reports of local election officials taking similar actions. Election conspiracy theory promoters claim there are more out there.
Experts say the danger is that the very people trusted to carry out elections could release confidential information and undermine security measures.
It’s a “new and, frankly, more discouraging” threat, said Christopher Krebs, who ran the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security from 2018 to 2020. “Institutionally, we’ve lost a bit of a North Star in terms of how elections are conducted.”
Ballots in the Wind
Tina Peters’s 2018 election to clerk and recorder of Mesa County, a Republican stronghold amid the canyons of western Colorado, was her first foray into public office. A former flight attendant who ran a construction company with her ex-husband, Ms. Peters made her top campaign issue the reopening of local Division of Motor Vehicles satellite offices, a promise she fulfilled quickly.
But she had more trouble with election administration. Three months after the 2019 election, more than 500 ballots were found uncounted in a drop box outside the county election office. In the 2020 presidential primary, completed ballots were found blowing in the wind near the clerk’s office, according to The Daily Sentinel, the newspaper in Grand Junction.
By July 2020, residents had begun a recall effort to remove her from office, but they failed to obtain enough signatures.
The general election in Mesa County in 2020 went off smoothly, with no complaints of fraud or other delays. Yet the conspiracy theories spouted by Mr. Trump quickly took hold in this deeply red county, and county commissioners were soon inundated with calls from constituents questioning the results.
Ms. Peters eventually rejected requests to hand-count the ballots in her own county, where Mr. Trump won 62 percent of the vote, but she began to express doubts about the national results. She connected with a local group, organized by Ms. Boebert’s former campaign manager, that met regularly to swap theories. In April 2021, the group hosted Douglas Frank, a high school math and science teacher in Ohio whose debunked theories have been influential with election conspiracists.
After seeing Mr. Frank’s presentation, Ms. Peters invited him to attend an upcoming “trusted build” of the county election equipment, according to court records. The process is essentially a software update — performed in a secure location by officials from the secretary of state’s office and employees of Dominion Voting Systems, the voting machine manufacturer — that election skeptics have come to believe erases critical election data. It does not.
Mr. Frank did not accept the offer, but another member of the election denier network did attend, according to court records and interviews. Conan Hayes was a former pro surfer who had worked with Mr. Trump’s legal team as it challenged the 2020 results. In 2021, Mr. Byrne paid him around $200,000 to continue his work for a year, according to Mr. Byrne.
According to an account from Mr. Byrne, and confirmed by Mr. Hayes, he attended the trusted build on May 25, 2021. Mr. Hayes called Mr. Byrne from inside the Mesa County election offices, speaking in a hushed voice and explaining that he’d been invited to make backup copies of machines by a government official who thought that a cover-up was underway, Mr. Byrne said. When the two spoke over FaceTime, Mr. Byrne saw Mr. Hayes was dressed like a computer “nerd” and wearing someone else’s identification tag, Mr. Byrne said.
Ms. Peters had introduced a contractor at the event and identified him as Gerald Wood, a local I.T. consultant, according to court records. The real Mr. Wood, however, told investigators he was not there that day, or two days earlier, when his badge was used to enter a secure area.
Mr. Hayes has not been charged and is not named in the indictment, though a judge’s order did identify him as later receiving a package in the mail from Ms. Peters.
In a brief phone interview, Mr. Hayes said Mr. Byrne’s account was accurate. “Patrick is pretty clear on things,” he said.
‘I’ve Seen Things I Can’t Unsee’
Ms. Peters didn’t speak in detail about the incident, though she alluded to acting on her worries about the election in a meeting with a county commissioner over the summer.
“She talked about these white-hat guys, and she talked about having brought someone in to look at the computers, and that she now believed there was some compromise to the machines,” recalled Janet Rowland, a Republican and county commissioner in Mesa County. “And that was when she used the phrase, I think even twice at that one meeting, ‘I’ve seen things I can’t unsee.’”
In early August, passwords to the Mesa County election equipment appeared on a QAnon figure’s Telegram channel and then a right-wing website, leading to an investigation by the secretary of state.
Days later, Mesa County’s breach found an even bigger spotlight at a “Cyber Symposium” in South Dakota organized by Mr. Lindell. After one of Mr. Lindell’s other wild claims, which Mr. Hayes had also worked on, fizzled, he changed the conversation: Ms. Peters appeared onstage to tell her story and the Mesa County conspiracy was born.
The Next Conspiracy Theory
As part of Ms. Peters’s legal defense, information copied in Mesa County was soon packaged into a series of three reports purporting to show corruption in the election system. They were pumped through the online forums and promoted at in-person meetings. Mesa County soon overtook other discredited theories, such as the fictions about improprieties in Antrim County, Mich., that Mr. Trump eagerly promoted.
In fact, some of the same figures were involved in crafting both conspiracy theories. Mr. Hayes had helped to obtain the Antrim County information. And a cybersecurity firm, Allied Security Operations Group, that wrote the debunked Antrim analysis also produced the Mesa County reports for Ms. Peters’s legal team, according to the firm’s leader. There is no evidence the group was involved in the Mesa County breach.
Mr. Byrne calls the reports “the Rosetta Stone for us to prove the whole thing.” But experts say they reveal no problems at all. Two of the three reports don’t even suggest issues with election results and, instead, draw false conclusions about the vulnerability of elections machines by misinterpreting certain laws and procedures, said Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, who has studied the reports closely.
A third report claims to show anomalies in two Mesa County elections. But the issues were caused by human error and there was no evidence that any vote counts were improper, according to the Mesa County District Attorney’s office, which did an extensive investigation.
In February, Ms. Peters decided to try to turn her celebrity into political power, announcing a bid for secretary of state.
She made appearances on Stephen K. Bannon’s podcast and linked up with a group of far-right candidates for secretary of state across the country. She secured a speaking slot at a rally held by Mr. Trump in Wyoming.
In March, Ms. Peters was indicted on 10 criminal counts related to the effort to copy voting equipment software, including attempting to influence a public servant, criminal impersonation, conspiracy to commit criminal impersonation, identity theft and first-degree official misconduct.
On the campaign trail, Ms. Peters says the charges are politically motivated. She has claimed the investigation is part of a “globalist takeover” and casts herself as a martyr for a cause.
“I went to jail for you and I will continue to do it,” she told a group of election activists in Texas in April.
Ms. Peters has declined to say who is paying her lawyers, but has directed people wanting to support her legal efforts to donate to the Lindell Legal Offense Fund, which Mr. Lindell says he uses for various lawsuits and projects.
In the closing days of the campaign, Ms. Peters has received other assistance. A new super PAC in Colorado called Citizens for Election Integrity has spent $198,000 on advertisements attacking Pam Anderson, one of Ms. Peters’s opponents for the Republican nomination, according to campaign finance disclosures.
The group recently received a $100,000 donation from The America Project, a group founded by Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, another figure in the fight to overturn the 2020 election, and Mr. Byrne.
Ryan Biller contributed reporting from Grand Junction, Colo.