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Mesa County needed to restore trust after an election system breach. Here comes Wayne Williams, in his boots

Colorado’s former Secretary of State sought to reassure voters about a fair election
Mesa County Designated Election Official Wayne Williams speaks about the ballot counting process from inside the polling center Tuesday at the Mesa County Central Services in Grand Junction. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

GRAND JUNCTION – A kitschy red, white and blue wooden plaque reading “Of the people, By the people, For the people” hangs over a bank of Dominion Voting screens and scanners in a room tucked inside the warren of elections divisions offices at the Mesa County Clerk and Recorder’s building.

Two cameras point at former Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams from corners of the room where he stands in his politically neutral red and blue plaid shirt and his size 15½ cowboy boots. He is taking in every detail of the ballot tabulating going on around him. And he is grinning.

Sorting machines whir in the next room sending a stream of yellow ballot envelopes into slots. Election judges, in pairs of Republicans and Democrats, examine torn, stained, mismarked and unsigned ballots. Election workers wheel in locked black cases of ballots that other workers stack in bundles. Everything is operating as it should. This is turning out to be a normal election in abnormal circumstances that have placed Mesa County in a national spotlight at the vortex of election-fraud conspiracy theories.

Inside the ballot processing room, election judge Arie DeGroot gathers the envelopes to be counted by machine at the polling center at Mesa County Central Services in Grand Junction on Election Day. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

What went on in this room 4½ months ago brought Williams here. It also served as a wake-up call for what can happen when election integrity is compromised from the inside rather than by outside forces.

On a Sunday in May, when the rest of the office was dark and empty and the security cameras had been turned off, first-term Mesa County Clerk and election-fraud conspiracy theorist Tina Peters brought an unauthorized person inside, authorities said. That person copied hard drives that later turned up on a far-right website known to spread conspiracy theories and at a voter-fraud symposium.

Peters has claimed the copied files were proof of vote tampering. She became “Hero Tina” in the national election-conspiracy realm. With the help of election-fraud promoter and My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, she spent a month in hiding and away from her job, claiming that her life was in danger. She has repeated to followers that “God called me to do this.” She was stripped of her duties as the county’s chief election official. She is currently being investigated by at least three local, state and federal law enforcement agencies for her actions.

Her second-in-command has also been banned from the elections offices and charged on suspicion of felony burglary and a misdemeanor cybercrime offense. A third worker loyal to Peters has been placed on paid leave.

Into this void, enters Williams. As his ID badge shows, he is filling the position of Mesa County’s Designated Election Official, or DEO. Williams is a Republican who served as Secretary of State from 2015 to 2019 and currently holds a seat on the Colorado Springs City Council. The Mesa County commissioners tapped him in August to run this election at a time when voters’ faith in an honest voting process had been badly shaken by Peters’ alleged breach and by false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

Williams had run dozens of elections around the state, including special district votes, recalls and statewide elections. Five years ago, he gained notoriety when he demonstrated his nonpartisan credentials in the election realm when he replaced a presidential elector who failed to vote for candidate Hillary Clinton as the elector was pledged. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Williams’ action.

The Mesa County commissioners looked to him as someone who could assuage the voters in their Republican-heavy county, where whispers spread about a rigged election last year when far right-wing candidates were not elected to the Grand Junction City Council. Williams was also viewed as acceptable to Democrats who looked to his experience and his outsider status to run a fair election.

“I have never claimed to be perfect, but I do have a pretty good knowledge of elections,” Williams said. “Besides running elections, I have also been an elections attorney and an election defendant.”

But running another election was not what he expected to be doing on top of his duties on the Colorado Springs City Council.

“The last thing I saw myself doing in 2021 was running an election in Mesa County and moving back into a dorm room,” Williams said as he drove between polling places in Grand Junction, Fruita and Palisade with his stereo blasting “Hallelujah” and his changes of clothes swinging on a rack in the back seat.

Since he took the position in mid-August, he has stayed in a dorm room at Colorado Mesa University during his seven trips to Grand Junction to oversee the building of ballots, the replacement and testing of new voting equipment, and the preparation for a highly contested school board election.

Williams is overseeing an election where 41 pieces of election equipment are brand new. They had to be replaced after the breach. The cost to Mesa County for all that, along with legal fees, added election-security measures, and Williams’ pay, is estimated to be $1 million.

With all that, this Election Day – its backstory different from all others – is rolling along with only a few wrinkles.

Tina Peters was banned, but made her presence known

At 6:30 a.m. on Election Day, Williams had to deal with a possible COVID-19 outbreak in the Fruita polling place. Everyone in the office was tested and a crisis was averted when all tests were negative.

Williams was unshaken.

“I have dealt with worse,” he said.

Since 1997, when he ran his first election, he has had polling-place near disasters that included a slab of concrete falling near an entrance, no heat, threats of flooding, and the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012 that necessitated moving an elections office from one side of Colorado Springs to another.

The Mesa County headaches on this day were minor by comparison. A voter complained about a large video screen in a ballroom at Colorado Mesa University that read “Thank you, Cody Davis.” Davis is a Republican county commissioner who made a donation to the university. A voter who walked by it on the way to the polling place objected. Williams had to point out that Davis was not on the ballot so there was no election violation.

Several suspicious voters complained to polling place greeters that the election could be fraudulent and were given tours of the vote counting areas and invitations to become future elections judges by Mesa County Treasurer Sheila Reiner, who is serving as Williams’ second-in-command for the election.

Two people were blowing on rams’ horns, which are sometimes seen as QAnon symbols, in the parking lot of the clerk’s office, but there was no election law violation in that.

Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters, who was recently removed from the designated election official role by the district court judge, at her desk in Grand Junction on Election Day. Peters was accused of security breach of the voting systems before the elections. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Peters raised eyebrows when she made some surprise appearances during the day. She showed up about 2:30 p.m. and went into her office in the recorder’s division. She is allowed in that office, but has been banned by Secretary of State Jena Griswold from entering the elections division, one of the five departments she oversaw before the trouble began.

When a reporter asked what she would be doing in the office when she couldn’t participate in managing the election, she said incorrectly, “I still manage five divisions here.”

Peters created an awkward moment later in the day when she entered a room where election workers were taking a dinner break. Peters walked in, filled a plate with lasagna, and made the rounds of the room thanking the workers for their contribution to the election.

No one invited her to sit, and she left with her plate of food. Meanwhile, Williams tucked into his Olive Garden dinner with no comment. It was 10 hours into his day of overseeing an election while also attending a virtual City Council meeting and a redistricting meeting with a group of Mesa County officials.

Williams said he was willing to take on the extra duty of a Mesa County election in large part because he had worked in the past in two Front Range counties with two experienced elections officials, Brandi Bantz and Stephanie Wenholz, who are now working in the Mesa County office.

“They know how to run an election,” he said.

Bantz and Wenholz took care of the nuts and bolts of vote certification and tabulation and answered questions from election judges and left it to Williams to shake hands and thank every election volunteer in four offices. He belted out a few bars of songs in visits to the outlying polling places. He moved a table here or a voting booth there to make a polling place more user-friendly. He inquired if voting judges had access to bathrooms. He complimented them on their jigsaw puzzle progress in some of the quieter polling places. He generally spread a message that everything was running as a proper election should.

“My management style is the antithesis of micromanaging,” he said, while elections workers flitted around his temporary office in red, white and blue clothing, shoes and jewelry – much of it sparkly.

By the time the constant line of cars dropping off ballots had stopped and the constant clanking of the drop box was silent just after 7 p.m., nearly 50,000 voters had cast ballots – the number Williams had picked in predictions inked on a white-board by elections workers. In the end, about 48% of Mesa County’s 108,237 active registered voters cast ballots, up slightly from the last odd-year election, when about 44% of 109,960 active registered voters cast ballots.

Mesa County election official Barbara Brewer collects ballots at the vehicle drop-off location in front of Mesa County Central Services. About 48% of Mesa County’s active registered voters cast ballots in the 2021 election, up slightly from the last odd-year election, when 44% voted. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Before midnight, it appeared the Mesa County school board race between Willie Jones and Nick Allen was close enough to trigger an automatic recount, but late votes put Jones over the top.

The final vote counts from Tuesday won’t mean Williams’ work on this unusual election will be over.

After being tabulated on Dominion Voting machines on Election Day, the votes will be counted again on ClearVote machines to satisfy voting-integrity skeptics. For several weeks in December, 100 bipartisan election judges will hand count all 52,232 ballots for another layer of assurance to skeptical voters. Williams hopes to have that completed by Dec. 17. He said it will be the largest hand-count of votes in the state. He is still working to find the 100 election judges needed to carry out that hand count.

After that, there may still be a void in the Mesa County clerk’s position depending on the outcome of criminal investigations into Peters’ actions, the possibility of a recall, or the unlikely chance that Peters could resign.

Williams could be tapped to help during a coming year that will need redistricting changes built into elections. Caucus lists must be out to various political parties by the end of January. A primary election will be held in late June, municipal elections in April, and a gubernatorial election in the fall. There will be very little lull in the clerk’s office when this election is buttoned up and in the record books.

Williams said he is prepared to think about longer duty in Mesa County if needed. Elections and politics are in his blood and have been since he was a high school student and organized a 70-person contingent of fellow young Republicans to influence a local vote in Warren County, Virginia. As a college student, he opted to attend a political convention rather than go with his buddies on a beach vacation.

“I really enjoy elections,” he said as he settled in for a long night of counting votes that wouldn’t end until 2:40 a.m. Williams walked the remaining election workers and volunteers to their cars shortly after 3 – and made the trip back to his dorm room.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.