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Almost eight months after the 2020 presidential election, El Paso County Republicans are doubling down on claims of election fraud. Claims of a rigged election fueled the attack on the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, and have inspired third-party election audits in Arizona and Georgia. Secretaries of state, county clerks and various other elected officials and experts across the nation have debunked the claims of election fraud, but the narrative persists. On July 17, state Rep. Dave Williams (R-HD15) held a town hall at the Church for All Nations in northeast Colorado Springs, allowing Rep. Ron Hanks (R-HD60) to share details of the Maricopa County election audit in Arizona, where Hanks had recently visited.

“The town hall that was held on July 17 was nothing more than an event designed to spread false and misleading claims about the 2020 election,” says Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold. “To be very clear, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, Attorney General [William] Barr, various U.S. Attorneys have all said the 2020 election was the securest in United States’ history. There is absolutely no evidence to support Rep. Hanks’ or other of these representatives’ bad faith statements that are meant to undermine voters’ confidence in our election.”

Williams and Hanks spoke to approximately 100 attendees during the town hall and made broad claims about widespread election fraud. Williams claimed that 5,600 deceased voters took part in the 2020 election in Colorado, and that voter fraud played a role in Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper’s victory over Cory Gardner. “Let’s just say that we should examine that race as well as every other race we have here, especially since there are people voting from beyond the grave,” he said.

Griswold rejects Williams’ claims, noting, “We go through a rigorous process to remove deceased voters from our voter rolls, and generally to keep our voter rolls clean. Every month, we get a report from CDPHE [Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment], and then there is an extra mid-month list leading up to every election. We also get the Social Security data through ERIC [Electronic Registration Information Center] every month to make sure we are removing people as appropriate. When there is any doubt, we work closely with the counties to refer any potential cases to law enforcement.”

Hanks MADE claims about election fraud THAT were both grandiose — stating that there were “well over 100,000 incidents of irregularities” in Maricopa County — and vague. He prefaced his claims with words like “hypothetically,” “conceptually” and “theoretically.” He suggested that Runbeck, an Arizona company that prints ballots, could possibly be reusing returned ballots to sway the election. “Here’s a hypothetical for you — and it has been asked — what happens to the ballots that are sent to an address but that person doesn’t live there anymore and the Postal Service, through some grace, returns it?” he asked. “It’s going to go back to the sender, and the sender is Runbeck, and there’s some questions about what they’re doing. What do they do with those ballots? Do they fill them out? Put them in a drop box that makes it rather easy to spread the extra votes? That’s a concern we have. They did 30 million [ballots], and on top of that there’s the 168,000 paper ballots on the wrong kind of paper. You heard Rep. Williams make the point that 5,600 people they found so far in Colorado that were deceased, but on our voting rolls. Arizona came up with the same thing. Thousands.”

Jeff Ellington, president and CEO of Runbeck Election Services, said ballots are not returned to Runbeck. “For all of our elections partners that utilize our vote-by-mail services, the return address printed on each envelope is for the county elections office in that local jurisdiction,” he said in an email. “Runbeck Election Services does not handle or receive ANY mail packets that are undeliverable to the voter.”

Ellington also pointed out that even if someone did snag some extra ballots, the signature verification process is designed to stop that kind of fraud. “Further, a vote-by-mail ballot cannot simply be injected into the system for tabulation without an authentic and verified signature from the voter and a barcode on the envelope identifying the voter for that election,” he said. “The processes and systems set in place ensure that every signature is verified and that every legitimate vote is counted. Ballot return envelopes are specific to an individual voter, which is how we know if a signature is correct or not. If a mismatch is detected, then the ballot is referred to the next review process by local elections officials.”

Though ostensibly about the results of the Maricopa County audit, Hanks spent much of the time discussing elections in Colorado and criticizing Griswold’s emergency rules for voting systems, which prohibit the kind of third-party audits seen in Arizona. “What I would say, with regard to Colorado, we are starting to push back as aggressively as we can,” he said. “Actually, that’s not true, it’s going to get more aggressive here shortly. On 17 June [Griswold] put out that comment, emergency rules, and made a couple of rather caustic little jabs at the citizenry of Colorado and America that ‘there will be no fraudits. We will not perpetuate the Big Lie.’ Individuals like Secretary of State Griswold, they’re finding themselves on the wrong side of that argument. We are finding the fraud. This is a narrowing peninsula that these county clerks and secretaries of state are standing on, and pretty soon it’s going to erode into an island in my estimation. I’ve seen enough in Arizona, without having the full numbers yet, that there was enough fraud down there to turn this.”

In El Paso County, GOP Chairwoman Vickie Tonkins sent out a July 14 news release that also criticized Griswold’s emergency rules. “Americans know that you catch the most flak when you’re over the target, and if you didn’t chop down the cherry tree, you don’t have to tell a lie,” read Tonkins’ release. “Honest citizens don’t fear an audit.”

Griswold emphasizes that the 2020 election was audited. “All of this started in Arizona where Republicans hired this partisan firm with no election experience to conduct a sham audit, and it’s all to justify their voter suppression efforts and support the Big Lie,” she says. “There is no basis to what is happening in Arizona and there is no basis to the Representative’s [Hanks’] claims. In Colorado, we do something called a ‘trusted build’ where civil servants upgrade all the voting equipment across the state. There is chain of custody, and we are considered the securest state in which to cast a ballot — in part because of our security protocols. Besides that, we also do something called a risk-limiting audit. Colorado’s voting equipment has been audited more than any election equipment in any state in the nation. We have never found any proof of any voting issue.”

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Joe Oltmann and Vickie Tonkins (center) confer during the February El Paso County GOP Central Committee meeting.

Hanks suggested that, despite the trusted build process and risk-limiting audits, Colorado’s elections are still vulnerable because the voting equipment is manufactured in China. “I wanted to mention the Dell computers, the laptops that are used around the nation, as part of that election system equipment,” he said. “Those are made in China. Those are made in Chengdu, China. They run all kinds of programs that are not necessary for a single-use system like an election computer. When you have software that runs solitaire, and all those games, you end up with millions of lines of code. Nobody knows what’s in all that code.”

Hanks went on to tout his experience as a military intelligence officer and to suggest that the election fraud was part of a conspiracy involving China. “If China knew they could influence our elections and get pro-Chinese policies, wouldn’t they do it?” he asked. “Let me go out on a limb here — I think they did. They did.”

Griswold is familiar with the “China did it” refrain. “Again, in Arizona they were scanning ballots for bamboo, because that, in some racist way, meant that Asia was involved in their allegations of manipulation,” she says. “I think it’s important not to spread these lies and get voters in Colorado good information. In terms of the trusted build, the Secretary of State’s office has been doing trusted builds for the counties since 2007, with overwhelming success. This is the process of how we ensure voting equipment across the entire state is in excellent working order, performs as it should and is secure. All of our voting systems in the state are tested, maintained and follow standards set out in federal or state law. No voting system is ever connected to the internet and no one outside of specifically authorized personnel, with background checks, have access to system hardware or software.”

The July 17 town hall was the latest election fraud event from Williams and Hanks, who have continually questioned the results of the 2020 election. In December 2020, Williams and Hanks, along with Pikes Peak area Reps. Shane Sandridge (R-HD14) and Tim Geitner (R-HD19), among other Colorado Republicans, demanded a Legislative Audit Committee hearing on election integrity based on claims that voter registration postcards were sent to ineligible voters by the Secretary of State’s Office during the 2020 election. Those claims were inspired by a misleading CBS Denver story that was later retracted. The eight-hour Legislative Audit Committee hearing in December found no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Colorado.

In addition to visiting the Maricopa County election audit, Hanks took part in the Jan. 6 rally that led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Hanks’ participation in the Jan. 6 rally led Rep. Donald Valdez (D-HD62) to call for a formal inquiry. House leaders of both parties said there was no evidence Hanks did anything illegal. 

In February, Williams spoke at the El Paso County GOP Central Committee meeting, questioning the integrity of Dominion Voting Systems, a company that provides the vote-counting machines used in Colorado elections. Dominion has been at the heart of election fraud conspiracies, and has sought legal action against lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, Mike Lindell (CEO of MyPillow), and Fox News and Newsmax for their roles in spreading election fraud claims. Most recently, on July 8, Williams, Hanks and Sandridge as well as Rep. Patrick Neville (R-HD45) and Rep. Kim Ransom (R-HD44) sent a letter to Griswold demanding “a current and complete schedule of all software upgrades to the election systems in each county in the State of Colorado, to include the Dominion 5.13 upgrade.”

Hanks read a portion of Griswold’s response to the July 8 letter to the Church for All Nations audience. “Listen to what she wrote,” he said. “If I may, ‘I am compelled to add a word of caution to your request. We are seeing a rising tide of threats to election officials nationally — stoked by former and current elected officials who are undermining confidence in elections by asserting that the 2020 election was riddled with irregularities, without any proof to support that assertion, all for their own political gain.’ It goes on and on. ‘In sharing this schedule, I caution that it not be used as a tool to fuel unfounded conspiracy theories about our elections. Doing so could very well add to the growing threats against election officials and undermine safety … we are now the target of vitriol such as we have never seen before.’”

The audience took the opportunity to cheer after that excerpt. “The fact that when Rep. Hanks read the letter my office sent to him about election officials getting threats and harassment and invited the crowd to cheer is extremely concerning,” says Griswold. “These are civil servants who have been with the office through many secretaries of state, predominantly Republicans, who go above and beyond every election to deliver. To see an elected official in the state of Colorado perpetuate lies that are causing threats against them is disgraceful.”

Griswold said the wave of threats directed at election workers was one of the motivating factors behind her June 17 emergency rules. “The frenzy of conspiracy theories around the Arizona audit has led to an extreme amount of pressure being put on our county election officials — county clerks,” she says. “Various county clerks were getting threatened on a daily basis to do these fake audits, which they are not allowed to do in the state of Colorado. I thought it was very important to lay down the line of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. I think the fact of the matter is, to take us a step back, these lies that are coming out of Rep. Hanks and Williams, their town hall, their letter, are leading to literal death threats against election officials, and not just against Democrats. It’s very important that when we see elected officials pushing lies and misinformation, that other elected officials stand up for the truth.”

Threats against election workers have impacted not just elected officials and civil servants, but Dominion employees. The initial wave of fraud claims following the election originated, in part, in Colorado. Shortly after the 2020 election, Douglas County resident Joe Oltmann, the former CEO of Pin Business Networks and co-host of the podcast Conservative Daily, made an unverified claim that he was on an “antifa conference call” that was attended by Eric Coomer, a Dominion executive. Oltmann claims Coomer stated he “made sure” Trump wouldn’t win the election. Oltmann then proceeded to make appearances with far-right media figures like Colorado’s Michelle Malkin, who has ties to white nationalists Patrick Casey of Identity Europa and Nick Fuentes of America First, as well as Eric Metaxas, a podcaster who attacked a protester at the Republican National Convention in September 2020. Oltmann’s claims were included in an affidavit attorney Sidney Powell filed with her failed “Kraken” election lawsuits. Oltmann shared social media posts purporting to be from Coomer and shared a photo of Coomer’s house on his Parler social media account.

Dominion stated Oltmann made the “antifa conference call” story up, “out of whole cloth.” In December, Coomer filed a defamation suit against Oltmann and others, including Powell, Giuliani, the Trump Campaign and FEC United, Oltmann’s conservative activist organization. According to the complaint, “Defendants knowingly circulated and amplified a baseless conspiracy theory to challenge the integrity of the presidential election. While this theory has been thoroughly rejected, its immediate and life-threatening effects remain very real. The deluge of misinformation has caused immense injury to Dr. Coomer’s reputation, professional standing, safety, and privacy. Once an esteemed private election technology expert, Dr. Coomer has been vilified and subjected to an onslaught of offensive messages and harassment. In response to multiple credible death threats, Dr. Coomer has been forced to leave his home in fear for his safety. Without concern for the truth or the consequences of their reckless conduct, Defendants branded Dr. Coomer a traitor to the United States, a terrorist, and a criminal of the highest order.”

Though the case is currently in litigation, Oltmann has made a number of claims about it on Conservative Daily, suggesting that Gov. Jared Polis has interceded on Coomer’s behalf and planted “activist judge” Marie Moses on the bench to hide evidence of election fraud. “They put [the lawsuit] in Denver; none of the defendants are in Denver,” said Oltmann on the July 27 episode of Conservative Daily. “They shopped it to the bluest area that had control by a guy named Jared Polis, who then assigned a judge to replace a 20-year judge, who had ruled against Coomer and his band of people.”

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Rep. Dave Williams, left, and Rep. Ron Hanks made election fraud claims during a July 17 town hall. 

Oltmann has continued to elaborate on his initial false claims about Dominion. “They’re a Canadian company,” he said on the same episode. “Their headquarters was housed on the same floor as a George Soros nonprofit. The people inside of Dominion sat on boards that were connected to George Soros. I don’t think George Soros is the evil minion behind the curtain, the only one doing it. I think there are multiple people that are behind this — Bill Gates. I think this goes really, really deep.”

(An AP fact check shows Dominion is not a Canadian company, but is owned by a New York private equity firm, and CNN fact-checking shows Dominion has no corporate ties to Soros.) 

In conspiracy circles, Soros has been tied to the antisemitic trope that Jews secretly control the world’s economy. He has been accused of funding antifa and has recently been accused by author Helen Joyce of funding the “transgender movement.”

Williams noted during the town hall, “We are in contact with Joe Oltmann and his organization and he has given us a wealth of information.”

Not only did Hanks use Williams’ town hall to discuss election fraud claims, he also promoted the movie The Deep Rig. “I want to draw your attention to a movie that we saw the premiere of when we were down there in Phoenix,” said Hanks. “Gen. Mike Flynn was in it, and they did a premiere. Joe Oltmann was down there onstage. It’s a compelling movie. I would look up Deep Rig on the internet. There was an effort to try to buy it for $1 a seat, 500-seat minimum, charge a few bucks and see it in an event theater like this.”

The film also features the leader of Arizona audit efforts, Doug Logan. In an April 1 statement, Dominion notes that Logan’s organization, Cyber Ninjas, is “beyond biased. Publicly-available information indicates the firms chosen for the Arizona effort are led by conspiracy theorists and QAnon supporters who have helped spread the Big Lie.” Dominion also noted, “Two weeks after the election, Logan tweeted that ‘Dominion servers in [Germany] WERE grabbed by ‘the good guys’ in Germany,’ promoting a false conspiracy theory that was circulating after the election. Logan’s comments about Dominion and its voting machines are particularly noteworthy, given that the audit will examine Maricopa County’s ballot tabulation machines.”

The Deep Rig was directed by Roger R. Richards, known for his film Above Majestic, which claims “lizard people” played a role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, among other conspiracy theories.

At the end of the town hall, Hanks and Williams gave the audience suggestions on how to stay up to date with the latest happenings in the election fraud world. “One of the best things you can do is go look at what Tucker Carlson is putting out,” said Williams.

“What I would recommend you do is get on Telegram,” said Hanks. “Get on the channels. If you’re looking for good reporters, look at One American News Network’s Christina Bobb.”

In addition to the right-wing mediasphere, the social media platform Telegram has become popular in extremist circles as content regarding election integrity has been removed by mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Oltmann’s Telegram channel is a melange of content regarding COVID-19 vaccinations, election fraud claims and pleas to “take our country back.”

One user posted, “If you live in CO then you know an effort to audit has been made illegal while invading illegals are legal.” Another falsely asked, “Joe, can you tell us the back story of why I am seeing posts regarding Michael Bennet? I know he is part of the cabal but I’m curious about whether he was participating in the whole child pedophilia scandal?” 

Disclosure: Heidi Beedle has contributed articles to antifascist blogs and was formerly involved in antifascist activism. As a professional journalist, she is no longer involved in any form of political activism. In Oltmann’s Nov. 13, 2020, affidavit for Powell, he described Indy reporter Heidi Beedle as “leader of Our Revolution in El Paso County (Southern Colorado) and Antifa leader of the same area.” Oltmann’s claims are false.

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Heidi Beedle is a former soldier, educator, activist, and animal welfare worker. She received a Bachelor’s in English from UCCS. She has worked as a freelance writer covering LGBTQ issues, nuclear disasters, cattle mutilations, and social movements.