Facing ‘insider threats,’ Colorado steps up training curriculum for county clerks, election workers
Election worker Davis Grilley operates the Agilis ballot sorting system at the Arapahoe County Elections Facility in Littleton, on Nov. 3, 2020. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)

An elections security bill signed by Gov. Jared Polis last week codifies the curriculum for the certification program county clerks and election workers must complete, a move that leaders hope will ensure clerk expertise and contribute to the professionalization of the industry.

“These certification programs really help bolster the knowledge and skills and abilities of the people that are working elections. In Colorado, this is the next step for that,” Matt Crane, the executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association said in an interview.

SB22-153 was billed by lawmakers as an attempt to limit “insider threats” to elections, such as the one Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters is alleged to have posed by facilitating a security breach in her county’s elections office in 2021. The law includes provisions such as physical security requirements and restrictions on who can access voting equipment.

It also puts certain certification program curricula into statute and requires clerks to complete the program, which is administered by the Secretary of State’s office, within six months of taking office or before they oversee their first election. Before, they had to pass the program within two years.

Specifically, the law mandates courses in general election law, the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, professional development, voter registration and list maintenance, accessibility, coordinated elections, the mail ballot and in-person voting process, voting systems testing, canvasses and risk-limiting audits. Those courses are the “floor, not the ceiling” of what should be offered, Crane said. Many of the topics are addressed in the existing curriculum.

The CCA played a role in crafting the legislation and making sure clerks’ priorities were met.

“After what we saw in Mesa County, we saw someone who I would classify as a low information clerk fall prey to the half-truths and lies about elections systems that were out there, not knowing she could completely invalidate those claims on her own,” he said.

Peters has frequently spread the baseless claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen due to voter fraud, which has been debunked by experts, courts and election officials from both parties. The Republican, who is running for secretary of state, is a hero among conspiracy theorists who believe there is widespread voter and election fraud in Colorado.

“It was a wow moment — like, how could she not know this?” Crane said. “And it was at that point we took a look at mandating that people get certified before they run their first election. We don’t think it’s an unfair expectation that people know their jobs before doing them.”

For most clerks, the certification is not an issue.

“I started taking some of the classes after I won my election. The reason I started to take them so early was because I found the content so helpful and valuable,” Boulder County Clerk Molly Fitzpatrick, a Democrat, told Newsline in an interview. She said she has taken most of the 30 or so courses offered.

To Fitzpatrick, it’s critical for clerks to know as much as possible about how elections function — from the high-level overview to the minutiae of list management — in order to combat misinformation and help skeptical voters trust the process.

“The more they arm themselves with information early on, the higher quality of service they will be able to provide to voters, and they’ll be able to know the reality and truth of what elections look like here in Colorado,” she said.

Colorado’s training program began in 2006 as a way for clerks and election staff to understand their often-complex job duties, as some county clerks come in with election experience while others have no background in it. Over the years, the curriculum has evolved to be job-specific, with tracks for roles like administrators, IT professionals, public outreach coordinators and overall managers.

El Paso County Clerk Chuck Broerman, a Republican, said the curriculum, while expansive, only scratches the surface of what a clerk needs to know. He is glad the new law expands and codifies topics.

“For the average citizen, they think an election is just a matter of printing some ballots, mailing them out, receiving them back and counting them. But we really have hundreds and hundreds of layers of steps and procedures and check offs we have to do,” he told Colorado Newsline.

In addition to the state certification, Broerman said he also holds a national certification in election administration.

What the training curriculum covers

The core classes in Colorado are online courses with a quiz at the end, which requires an 85% score to pass. Clerks and staff must also complete six electives and two classroom training sessions, though they can also substitute one classroom training for another elective. The courses are updated annually by the Secretary of State’s elections division and are always available except when the office is actively updating them.

As of last May, the certification curriculum was as follows, according to documents from the Secretary of State’s office:

  • Emphasis: Voter registration, clerical, administrative support, mapping, other county department
    • Basic core classes: Elections 101, Elections Security, Issues in Voter Registration, Overseas and Military Voting, Advanced Voter Registration and List Maintenance and Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities (Part 1)
    • Suggested electives: Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities (Part 2), Address Confidentiality, Ballot Access Beginning, Navigating Election Laws
  • Emphasis: Election judge training and/or recruiting, communications, public relations, voter outreach
    • Core classes: Elections 101, Elections Security, Issues in Voter Registration, Overseas and Military Voting and Watchers and Observers
    • Suggested electives: Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities (Part 1), Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities (Part 2), Voter Service and Polling Center Set up and Management
  • Emphasis: IT, data, security, voting equipment, operations, supplies, warehouse
    • Core classes: Elections 101, Elections Security, Issues in Voter Registration, Overseas and Military Voting, Logic and Accuracy Testing, Voter Service and Polling Center Set up and Management
    • Suggested electives: Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities (Part 1), Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities (Part 2)
  • Emphasis: Managers, leads, multiple job duties
    • Core classes: Elections 101, Elections Security, Issues in Voter Registration, Overseas and Military Voting, Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities (Part 1), Navigating Election Laws
    • Suggested electives: Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities (Part 2), Address Confidentiality, Ballot Access Beginning, VSPC Set up and Management, Advanced Voter Registration and List Maintenance

The online classes review the nuts and bolts of the topic, while classroom trainings offer hands-on experience and networking with other election workers in the region.

Some of those in-person courses include ballot design, advanced election security, ethics, the history of voting rights and media.

Another popular classroom training is the Election Preparedness for Infrastructure and Cybersecurity (EPIC) event, which was first held by former Secretary of State Wayne Williams.

It’s an armageddon-like exercise that puts election workers in an Election Day simulation where everything that can go wrong does: cybersecurity problems, snowstorms and a global pandemic, for example. The participants then brainstorm and work through contingency plans to run a successful election under those conditions.

“They throw everything but the kitchen sink at you that day, and that’s been something that has been new to us but has been very valuable for us as these threats come forward,” Broerman said.

It’s also an opportunity for clerks to share best practices with one another. A rural county can learn from an urban one, and vice versa.

“It was a good opportunity to practice what you would do, as well as network with some of the other counties and their staff to figure out how we can collaborate in the future, figure out what they’re doing, glean some lessons from that and improve our own procedures,” Fitzpatrick said.

Professionalism and the fight for credibility

Colorado has historically been a leader in professionalizing the elections industry, Fitzpatrick said, and a robust training program is part of that.

“Professionalization of the industry and a strong association is incredibly important because we’re able to go at this together versus go at it alone,” she said, specifically referring to the rise in misinformation and election denialism.

Through not only training, but also pushing legislation, collaborating and keeping a dialogue, clerks can get a better picture of how voters experience elections and work to find solutions that benefit the most people.

Of course, training also ensures competency.

“We welcome this. We want to be held to a high standard. It’s not something that we resist,” Broerman said. “It’s important for all of us to be the best at our craft and, quite frankly, we welcome the opportunity to take these classes and demonstrate to our citizens that we are professionals.”

With that competency comes credibility, and clerks can better communicate with voters about the process of free and fair elections. As false claims about the legitimacy of the electoral process swirl around on social media, clerks’ offices can be the first place people look to for answers.

“To be able to provide them with accurate information quickly is very important, especially in this era with so much mis- and disinformation that people are seeing online or hearing in their community,” Fitzpatrick said. “We want people to know that we are a trusted source of information.”

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.