By Alexandra Ulmer and Nathan Layne
KIOWA, Colorado (Reuters) – Eighteen months after Donald Trump lost the White House, loyal supporters continue to falsely assert that compromised balloting machines across America robbed him of the 2020 election.
To stand up that bogus claim, some Trump die-hards are taking the law into their own hands – by attempting, with some success, to compromise the voting systems themselves.
Previously unreported surveillance video captured one such effort in August in the rural Colorado town of Kiowa. Footage obtained by Reuters through a public-records request shows Elbert County Clerk Dallas Schroeder, the county’s top election official, fiddling with cables and typing on his phone as he copied computer drives containing sensitive voting information.
Schroeder, a Republican, later testified that he was receiving instructions on how to copy the system’s data from a retired Air Force colonel and political activist bent on proving Trump lost because of fraud.
That day, Aug. 26, Schroeder made a “forensic image of everything on the election server,” according to his testimony, and later gave the cloned hard drives to two lawyers.
Schroeder is now under investigation for possible violation of election laws by the Colorado secretary of state, which has also sued him seeking the return of the data. Schroeder is defying that state demand and has refused to identify one of the lawyers who took possession of the hard drives. The other is a private attorney who works with an activist backed by Mike Lindell, the pillow mogul and election conspiracy theorist.
Schroeder said in a legal filing that he believed he had a “statutory duty” to preserve voting records. He declined to comment for this report.
The episode is among eight known attempts to gain unauthorized access to voting systems in five U.S. states since the 2020 election. All involved local Republican officeholders or party activists who have advanced Trump’s stolen-election falsehoods or conspiracy theories about rigged voting machines, according to a Reuters examination of the incidents. Some of the breaches, including the one in Elbert County, were inspired in part by the false belief that state-ordered voting-system upgrades or maintenance would erase evidence of alleged fraud in the 2020 election. In fact, state election officials say, those processes have no impact on the voting systems’ ability to save data from past elections.
The incidents include a North Carolina case, first reported last week by Reuters https://www.reuters.com/world/us/exclusive-local-election-chief-threatened-by-republican-leader-seeking-illegal-2022-04-23, in which a local Republican Party leader threatened to get a top county election official fired or have her pay cut if she didn’t give him unauthorized access to voting equipment. In southern Michigan, a pro-Trump clerk who has expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory on social media defied state orders to perform maintenance on a voting machine on the unfounded belief that doing so could erase proof of alleged fraud. In another Michigan case, a Republican activist impersonated an official from a made-up government agency in a plot to seize voting equipment.
Some of the people and groups involved in the vigilante election-investigator movement are drawing financial support from Lindell, the My Pillow Inc chief executive and one of the most visible backers of Trump’s false fraud claims. Lindell said he hired four top members of one group, the U.S. Election Integrity Plan, or USEIP. The group got Lindell’s backing about three months after its co-founder advised Elbert County Clerk Schroeder in his effort to copy and leak voting data. In all, Lindell told Reuters he has spent about $30 million and hired up to 70 people, including lawyers and “cyber people,” partly in support of Cause of America, a right-wing network of election activists.
Lindell, who said he hasn’t been involved in any data breaches, said his quest aims to prove fraud in the 2020 vote and to reshape American elections by getting rid of electronic voting machines and returning to paper ballots. The Trump ally said his fraud claims will eventually be vindicated in spite of what he described as ridicule from the media.
“We’ve got to get rid of the machines!” Lindell said. “We need to melt them down and use them for prison bars and put everyone in prison that was involved with them.”
A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to requests for comment.
‘DESTROYING VOTER CONFIDENCE’
Four experts in voting law told Reuters the extent of these balloting-data breaches is unprecedented in modern U.S. elections. The violations are especially worrying, say election officials, because they break the chain of custody over ballots and tabulating equipment. Such safeguards allow for the tracking of exactly who has handled sensitive voter data; they are essential to making elections secure and to resolving any challenges or fraud allegations.
“You need to make sure that those ballots are maintained under strict chain of custody at all times,” said David Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research. “It’s destroying voter confidence in the United States.”
Such breaches can also constitute privacy invasions by exposing information about individual voters. The Colorado data Schroeder leaked likely included ballot images that showed how people voted, according to the secretary of state’s office. If so, that would violate a core principle of modern American democracy: the secret ballot, which is intended to protect voters from politically motivated harassment or intimidation and to prevent vote-buying.
The secret ballot “is a fundamental right in American elections,” said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan group that advocates for secure elections.
The incidents examined by Reuters all took place in states that have been competitive in recent elections: Two occurred in Colorado, three in Michigan and one each in Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. At least five of the cases are under investigation by local or federal law enforcement, with three arrests and one conviction, according to state and local officials. Four of the breaches forced election officials to decertify or replace voting equipment that was no longer secure.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to comment.
The type of data leaked varies; in some cases, the full extent of the losses remains unknown. In Colorado’s Mesa County, the secretary of state accuses clerk Tina Peters of allowing an unauthorized person to make a “forensic image” of a voting-equipment hard drive. In addition, confidential passwords required to upgrade the county’s election software were published on the internet, according to an indictment of Peters. Like Schroeder, Peters said she was exercising her statutory duty to preserve election records. She accused Dominion and the secretary of state, without evidence, of conspiring to destroy evidence of election fraud.
In three other attempts–in Ohio’s Lake County, Michigan’s Cross Village and North Carolina’s Surry County–no data is believed to have been accessed. In two other cases, Reuters was unable to determine what data, if any, was stolen.
It’s also unclear what data, if any, may have been accessed in Michigan’s Adams Township, where a key component of an election tabulator machine went missing for four days in October 2021. It was eventually found in the office of a clerk who has posted memes indicating support for QAnon on Facebook. QAnon is a conspiracy theory casting Trump as a savior figure fighting a secret war against a cabal of Satanist pedophiles and cannibals, including prominent Democrats.
The rise of what election-security officials describe as “insider threats” – officeholders who leak confidential election data or sabotage voting machines – coincides with the national pressure campaign by Lindell-backed groups and other Trump allies who are traveling the country and lobbying local officials to replace electronic voting systems with hand-counted paper ballots. The push comes ahead of the November midterm elections that will decide control of the U.S. Congress, now narrowly held by Democrats, and the 2024 presidential election, in which Trump has indicated he could seek a second White House term.
County and town clerks are in the thick of things, in some cases as targets of the pressure, in others as the alleged actors. Clerks in the United States are often key election administrators, in addition to managing vital records, such as marriage licenses.
The American right’s fixation with voting machines intensified in the days after Democrat Joe Biden beat Trump. The defeated incumbent and his lawyers, including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, started making outlandish claims of rigged machines. The accusations were soon deemed bogus by courts and Trump’s own election-security chief, and spurred ongoing defamation lawsuits against Giuliani and others from a prime target of the Trump camp, voting-machine provider Dominion Voting Systems.
Dominion’s machines have been the focus of multiple baseless election conspiracy theories, including that financier George Soros and the family of Venezuela’s late socialist President Hugo Chavez conspired with Denver-based Dominion to steal the election.
Dominion said statements by Lindell and others “about Dominion have been repeatedly debunked, including by bipartisan government officials.”
Despite the lack of evidence, many Trump allies continue to insist that electronic voting machines were rigged in 2020 and argue for a return to paper ballots. Election officials from both parties warn such a change would make voting less secure. They say electronic voting machines provide more fraud safeguards than paper ballots by reducing human errors and preventing delays that could be exploited by bad actors seeking to block the certification of results.
A PHONY ‘ELECTION INTEGRITY COMMISSION’
The most recent known attempted breach came in March, when a county election director in North Carolina faced threats from a local Republican Party leader who demanded access to a vote tabulator – a machine which, by state law, may only be handled by election officials.
William Keith Senter, chair of the Surry County Republican Party, told elections director Michella Huff that he would have her fired if she didn’t comply, the state board of elections told Reuters, which first reported news of the incident on April 23.
Senter and a prominent election conspiracy theorist, Douglas Frank, met with Huff on March 28, falsely claiming that a “chip” inside voting machines was used to rig the 2020 results, the board said. Two days before, Frank had given a speech in which he espoused a number of debunked election conspiracy theories in Dobson, a town in the rural county of 72,000 people.
Senter and Frank did not respond to requests for comment for this report.
Huff refused Senter’s demands, made as part of a push by local activists to conduct a “forensic audit” of the 2020 presidential results. During one encounter, the state board found, Senter told Huff: “I can’t wait to watch you fall.” The state board said it reported the threats against Huff to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. No one has been charged in the matter.
At one point, Senter told Huff that the county sheriff, Steve Hiatt, would help him get the keys to the voting machines, Huff told the state board. Hiatt, a Republican, did not respond to requests for comment.
Huff, a registered independent, said she was dismayed by the threats and spread of disinformation. She said her office must now prepare for voters who may refuse to insert their ballot into the tabulator in the false belief the device will switch their vote.
“I’m very concerned for the voters,” Huff told Reuters. “Democracy starts here. It starts here in our office.”
To date, only one of the incidents has resulted in serious criminal charges over the voting data breaches: the case of Peters, the Mesa County clerk in Colorado. Peters, a Republican, was indicted in March on seven felony charges, including attempted influence of a public servant, criminal impersonation and identity theft, and three misdemeanors. The charges could carry a sentence of more than 25 years.
She has not yet entered a plea; her arraignment is scheduled for May 24. Peters declined to comment. She has previously said she is a victim of a partisan attack.
In Cross Village, Michigan, Tera Jackson faced felony charges after she allegedly impersonated a government official working for a non-existent agency – the “Election Integrity Commission” – and convinced three men to access the town’s vote tabulator on Jan. 14, 2021, and try to clone it, law enforcement records show. She told an investigator she was trying to “connect the dots” on a theory that the county voting tabulator was rigged.
But the Emmet County prosecutor cut a deal with Jackson, 56, who in late February pleaded no contest to a single misdemeanor count of creating a disturbance. The felony charges of fraud and unauthorized access to a computer were dropped. She served no jail time. Jackson did not respond to requests for comment.
The three men – a computer technician, a town trustee and a former law enforcement officer who showed up with a bulletproof vest and a gun – talked their way past the town clerk, claiming authority to inspect voting equipment. The computer technician opened parts of the tabulator and attempted to insert a flash drive into several ports but it wouldn’t fit, according to video footage taken by the three men and obtained by Reuters in a records request. At one point, the technician used pliers and then tweezers to extract a piece of plastic stuck in the machine, the video showed.
The men, who did not respond to requests for comment, believed they were part of an operation approved by the Department of the Defense, according to body camera footage and interviews by sheriff’s investigators. The town trustee told the investigators that Jackson said she was working with Sidney Powell, the pro-Trump lawyer who filed multiple unsuccessful lawsuits over the 2020 election, making wild and unfounded claims of voting fraud. Jackson told investigators that she had also been communicating with Phil Waldron https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-election-military, a retired Army colonel who worked with then-President Trump’s outside legal team on election-fraud claims.
Emmet County Detective Matt Leirstein said investigators found no evidence of Powell and Waldron’s involvement in the scheme. Powell and Waldron did not respond to requests for comment.
A judge signed an arrest warrant for Jackson in March, but she wasn’t arrested until late October. Her whereabouts were unknown for months, said Leirstein, the detective.
Some community members, including the township’s Republican supervisor, have criticized the prosecutor for going too easy on Jackson and have called for others to be charged, including the three men who accessed the voting equipment.
“Almost everything doesn’t add up,” said the supervisor, Stephen Keller, of the sheriff’s and the prosecutor’s handling of the case.
Leirstein, the sheriff’s detective, said he did not seek charges against the three men working with Jackson because he believed their stories that she had duped them. He said he did recommend charges against the town’s former Republican clerk, Priscilla Sweet, who lost her position in the 2020 election. The prosecutor declined to pursue those charges, he said.
Sweet was at the scene of the incident about the time law enforcement arrived, according to bodycam video footage reviewed by Reuters. The detective said Sweet told conflicting stories about how she knew it had happened. Phone records, he said, showed that Sweet and Jackson were in contact before the police were called to investigate. Sweet also admitted having told Jackson that she was concerned a pending voting system service would “wipe” the system of 2020 election data, according to a video of Leirstein’s interview of Sweet a few days after the breach.
Sweet did not respond to requests for comment.
Emmet County Prosecuting Attorney James Linderman did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Another breach came in Michigan’s Adams Township, a rural area of about 2,000 people. Township clerk Stephanie Scott, a Republican, is accused of resisting state orders to perform testing and maintenance on the machine, which she claimed would erase evidence of potential fraud. At a town meeting in October, Scott said she wanted “to find out what’s on this machine before destroying anything,” adding, “We need the proof. We can’t just make accusations.” On her Facebook page, Scott has expressed support for Trump, Lindell and QAnon.
The office of Michigan’s secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, sent a letter to Scott in October 2021 pointing out that data from the November 2020 election was not even stored in the tabulator. Benson stripped Scott of her duties in October, citing her refusal to perform legally required maintenance needed to “ensure the security and safety” of upcoming elections, according to a news release from Benson’s office.
When Hillsdale County officials, acting on state orders, confiscated the town’s tabulator, a crucial component called the scan unit, referred to as the brains of the device, was missing. State police obtained a search warrant and recovered the part from Scott’s office. Scott has not been charged; state police say their investigation into unauthorized tampering with the machine remains open. Meanwhile, the town has had to spend $5,500 on a new tabulator.
By the time police came to execute the warrant, Scott was represented by Stefanie Lambert, a Detroit attorney who – along with Sidney Powell and other pro-Trump lawyers – tried unsuccessfully to overturn the state’s election results, according to police records obtained in a public records request.
Lambert did not respond to requests for comment.
Scott declined to comment for this story. In February, she sued Benson and others in state court, claiming her powers were unconstitutionally usurped and that she had a duty to preserve election data under federal law.
In Colorado, the breach of voting data came to light in early January, when Elbert County clerk Schroeder admitted to copying the hard drives in a lawsuit he joined with other Republican officials against Colorado’s secretary of state. The lawsuit argued that the company that tests Dominion election system software, Pro V&V Inc, was improperly certified and that state authorities illegally destroyed election records – allegations the state and the company deny. The suit also asserts Colorado’s top election official, Secretary of State Jena Griswold exceeded her authority when she adopted emergency rules last year to prevent election audits she considered partisan and illegitimate. The case is ongoing.
So is the state’s own lawsuit against Schroeder. In legal filings, the clerk admitted to making a copy of the county election server’s two hard drives on Aug. 26. He said he got help from Shawn Smith, a retired Air Force colonel and self-styled election fraud activist, and Mark Cook, an IT specialist who supplied Schroeder with a digital forensic imager costing about $4,000 and capable of transferring data at high speeds. Both Smith and Cook then “provided instructions” as Schroeder worked to take the data, Schroeder testified. On Sept. 2, he made a second copy of the hard drives, he said.
Cook did not respond to requests for comment. Smith declined to comment.
Secretary of State Griswold, a Democrat, opened a formal inquiry after discovering Schroeder’s leak in January and sued the clerk on February 17, seeking the return of the data. Schroeder said in written responses to the inquiry that he gave the copied hard drives to two attorneys, one of whom he refused to identify. The other is John Case, a longtime Colorado attorney who says on his website that he’s dedicated to representing citizens “petitioning for integrity” in elections. Case now represents Schroeder in the state lawsuit against him.
Schroeder testified that he did not recall anyone asking him to copy the data. His decision to leak it to unauthorized lawyers, however, followed an intense effort to pressure county clerks across Colorado by an organization co-founded by Smith, one of the men who instructed Schroeder on how to copy the data. Smith’s organization, the U.S. Election Integrity Plan (USEIP), emailed all 64 Colorado county clerks and visited at least 10 of them, including Schroeder, demanding they investigate unfounded allegations of 2020 voter fraud, according to Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association.
Smith emailed Schroeder directly in early 2021, messages reviewed by Reuters show. In some communications, Smith shared a statistical analysis that purported to suggest that Biden had a suspiciously high number of votes in one precinct of majority-Republican Elbert County. Colorado state officials said the county’s votes were accurate.
Four of the emails from USEIP members and allies, reviewed by Reuters, referenced the debunked conspiracy theory about rigged voting machines from Dominion Voting Systems and asserted that clerks are legally bound to launch inquiries and preserve alleged evidence. “You have an obligation to investigate this evidence and take the appropriate actions,” read one message sent on March 15.
“The heat is more on Republican clerks,” said Crane, a Republican who served as Arapahoe County clerk until 2018. “They really look at us like traitors.”
In legal filings, Schroeder said he believed he had a “statutory duty” to preserve the 2020 voting records and the information he copied should be legally public information, without detailing what the files contained.
In court filings, Schroeder said that he was careful to “preserve chain of custody” with the data he gave the attorneys, asserting on Feb. 3 that the copied hard drives remained in “sealed containers.” He said the lawyers who took possession of the data – including the attorney representing him, Case – told him no one had accessed it.
Case declined to comment. He referred questions to USEIP co-founder Holly Kasun, who he described as his “media consultant.” Kasun did not answer questions about Case’s involvement in the data leak.
Schroeder said he feared a state-ordered upgrade to the voting system would erase records relating to the 2020 election. State officials, however, said the 2020 election records would be retained after the upgrade.
No charges have been filed against Schroeder or others involved in the breach of the voting system. The county’s district attorney’s office declined to comment. Elbert County Sheriff Tim Norton said his office had not investigated the incident, which he said was being “handled by the state.” A Colorado State Patrol spokesperson, Sergeant Troy Kessler, said state police do not handle “election matters.”
Three months after Schroeder leaked the data, USEIP’s members landed Lindell as a financial backer. The pillow magnate reached out to USEIP and said the group’s work in Colorado was “great,” Kasun, who co-founded the organization with Smith, said in an interview. Four USEIP members, including Smith, met with Lindell in Colorado Springs late last year and presented their work. At a subsequent meeting a few weeks later, Kasun said, Lindell told the group: “Let’s scale. Let’s do exactly what you’re doing with USEIP.”
The four activists joined Lindell as full-time employees, Lindell confirmed in an interview with Reuters. They now lead the Lindell-backed Cause of America, which coordinates a nationwide network of right-wing election activists. “We talk to him every day,” Kasun said of Lindell. “We keep him updated on what we’re doing. He also counsels us on how to run things. He offers us what we need to ramp up.”
Since joining Lindell, Smith has remained at the forefront of Colorado’s election conspiracy activism. At a February 10 event held in a Colorado church, Smith publicly threatened Griswold, saying: “You know, if you’re involved in election fraud, then you deserve to hang.”
Griswold, who did not attend the meeting, said she would not be “intimidated.”
“These threats are being fueled by extreme elected officials and political insiders who are spreading the Big Lie” – that 2020 vote was stolen – “to further suppress the vote, destabilize American elections, and undermine voter confidence,” she said in a statement.
Lindell told Reuters that Cause of America is just a small part of his overall effort to prove the 2020 election was stolen and to change election rules. He said he funds South Dakota-registered Cause of America and pays other election-focused employees through Lindell Management, a Minnesota-based LLC registered in 2018.
“I have over probably 50 to 70 people that I pay, that all they’re doing is on this election,” Lindell, 60, said in an interview. “I guess Cause of America would be a little piece of that.” The group helps connect other groups with lawyers.
Lindell, who says he is a former cocaine addict and attributes his reform to his Christian faith, has said he believes God chose Trump to be president. Now Lindell says God endorses his pursuit of election-fraud claims.
“God has given me an amazing platform,” he said. “I’m using it the best I can.”
Lindell has publicly praised Tina Peters, the Republican clerk of Colorado’s Mesa County, who has been charged in connection with one of the most invasive breaches of voting systems. In an interview, Lindell said of the allegations against Peters: “She backed up her computers. She did her job.”
He told Reuters he was paying her legal fees. “I’m sure it’s in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. In a subsequent interview, however, Lindell said he was mistaken: “I thought I put money towards it, but I never had.”
A lawyer for Peters, Harvey Steinberg, did not respond to a question about who was paying him.
Schroeder wasn’t the only Colorado clerk approached by the USEIP’s Smith for access to secure voting data. In May 2021, Smith told El Paso County clerk Chuck Broerman in a meeting that USEIP would conduct a “forensic investigation” of his voting systems, Broerman said.
“Clerk Broerman, we will do this either with you or through you,” Broerman recalled Smith telling him.
USEIP workers have also harassed Colorado voters in a door-to-door campaign, according to a lawsuit filed in March by the NAACP and other rights groups. Some USEIP workers impersonated government authorities from “the county,” wearing badges and carrying guns as they interrogated voters “about their addresses, whether they participated in the 2020 election, and – if so – how they cast their vote,” the suit alleges.
USEIP did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations. The organization has sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing it is speculative and without merit.
Schroeder, who has described himself as a self-employed entrepreneur, became clerk in this rural, heavily Republican county in 2013. The area’s about 27,000 residents in 2020 overwhelmingly backed Trump, who took 74% of votes here. Political signs such as “Trump Country” and “Eat Meat!! Vote Republican” dot the town of Kiowa, with a population of about 750.
Much of Elbert County supports Schroeder, according to interviews with local officials. The county’s Republican chair, Tom Peterson, and two county commissioners defended him. “Dallas is a highly respected clerk,” said Peterson, who also repeated the false theory that the state upgrade would erase election data.
Schroeder isn’t letting the state investigation slow him down. He is campaigning for higher office in November, asking voters to elect him to the county commission.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Nathan Layne; additional reporting by Linda So and Tim Reid; editing by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot)