By Fredreka Schouten, CNN
For several hours on a recent Thursday afternoon, a former college professor and his wife unspooled a string of alleged election “vulnerabilities” for officials in a rural New Mexico county to consider: “Digital manipulation” of the voter rolls. Voting machines that were not properly certified. “Ink anomalies” on ballots.
“Conspiracy to violate the election code imputes liability to you,” David Clements told the three members of the Otero County Commission, before adding, “Unless you do something about it.”
Four days later, they did — refusing to certify the June 7 primary results and setting off a high-profile confrontation between the all-Republican commission and New Mexico’s Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver before two commissioners relented in the face of a state Supreme Court order.
The showdown offers an illustration of how election skepticism has gone hyper-local in the 20 months since the 2020 presidential election and former President Donald Trump’s first efforts to promote the false claim that widespread fraud contributed to his defeat.
And as adherents of election skepticism have pushed their theories into more obscure corners of American democracy, state election officials are now scrambling to address the new challenges. They warn that these isolated pockets of resistance to carrying out normally ceremonial election functions, such as certifying results, could lead to chaos in future elections if they spread.
“It’s in the weeds that we are seeing this destabilization,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat. “It’s one of the many indications that the democracy is at code red.”
Public hearings by the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol have laid bare the extraordinary efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the last presidential election — from moves to derail the vote-certification process in key states to the former President’s unsuccessful quest to have the Department of Homeland Security or other federal agencies seize voting machines.
If even a few counties balk at certifying results, Griswold said, it could establish “the groundwork so that the next time a president is talking to DHS to try and seize voting equipment, people might think, ‘Maybe, there’s a basis because folks in this random county are saying something is wrong with their election.'”
State officials, election experts and top figures in the federal government, including then-Attorney General William Barr, all have said there was no evidence of widespread fraud that would have overturned President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.
New laws, contingency planning
Colorado lawmakers — at Griswold’s urging — recently passed a sweeping new law that aims to guard against insider threats to election operations. Among other things, it gives Griswold — or her designee — the power to certify election results should a local canvassing board refuse to sign off without a legitimate reason.
In New Mexico, state officials scrambled to develop an ad hoc plan that included asking the state’s high court to designate an alternate canvassing board to certify the Otero results had the county commissioners defied the court order, said Alex Curtas, a spokesman for Oliver.
Curtas said election officials also are planning to ask the Democratic-controlled legislature to add language to state law, clarifying “what these county canvass boards are there to do” when lawmakers convene next year.
And in Nevada, the secretary of state’s office is developing new regulations for hand-counting ballots after two rural counties in the state indicated they plan to move away from ballot-tabulating machines, citing distrust of voting equipment.
Clements, a former prosecutor who has said he was fired from his teaching job at the University of New Mexico in 2021 for not complying with Covid-19 mandates, has crisscrossed the country with his claims, promoting his appearances from California to North Carolina to the more than 111,000 people who subscribe to his Telegram channel.
He and his wife, Erin Clements, also are overseeing an election audit in Otero County, authorized by the county commission. Their work is unpaid, according to Commissioner Couy Griffin, who said he brought the couple to the commission’s attention following an overture from Erin Clements.
A crowd-funding site that says it was created to support Clements over his firing by the University of the New Mexico shows it has raised more than $304,000 to date.
When contacted, David Clements called CNN a “propaganda network” and declined to answer questions, including several written questions sent Monday, unless he could record the exchange with a reporter and post it on social media.
In a video posted earlier this year on Telegram, Clements discussed the benefits of the county-level approach with Jim Marchant — who is now the Republican nominee for Nevada secretary of state.
“I articulated what we call the county commission strategy some time ago because we kept running into these bottlenecks, where you have to get an entire legislature to approve,” Clements said.
Marchant, who has said he would not have certified Biden’s 2020 victory in Nevada, this year successfully lobbied county commissioners in Nye County, Nevada — a rural county north of Las Vegas — to vote to end the use of ballot tabulators and revert to hand-counting, over the objection of the county’s longtime Clerk Sandra “Sam” Merlino.
Merlino has said she has opted to retire early because of the dispute. Her last day is Friday.
“Just go talk to your county commissioners and let them know the vulnerabilities of these machines,” Marchant said to Clements.
In New Mexico, meanwhile, the Otero commissioners have adopted a similar stance, passing resolutions to discontinue the use of voting machines and ballot drop boxes — although those actions were largely symbolic. State law, for instance, requires at least two drop boxes per county.
Griffin, a co-founder of Cowboys for Trump, has been a central figure in his county’s campaign to challenge New Mexico’s election procedures. He was the sole commissioner who voted to defy court order to certify the primary results.
Griffin, a former rodeo cowboy at Disneyland Paris who now works as a stone mason, was convicted earlier this year of a misdemeanor charge of trespassing on the US Capitol grounds during the January 6 assault on the building. (He was sentenced in June to 14 days with time served, fined $3,000 and given one year of supervised release with the requirement that he complete 60 hours of community service.)
In an interview with CNN, Griffin said he wanted to leverage the county’s power over certification to demand more transparency of voting systems, including having a “forensics expert” of his choosing inspect Dominion Voting System machines.
“I’m not going as far as saying that China stole our elections,” he said, “but whenever you are dealing with technology and computers in a world that’s pretty much run by hackers, that’s of concern.”
Griffin said he’s encouraging similar action in other counties, despite his setback at home. “That’s the power we have on the local level,” he said.
Dominion Voting Systems has filed multiple lawsuits against people they say have spread unfounded conspiracy theories about the vulnerabilities of their voting machines.
In an interview with CNN, Kay Stimson, vice president of government affairs for Dominion Voting Systems, called the actions by counties like Otero an example of “just how damaging the lies have been to our company and our democracy.”
‘I’m being attacked’
The saga in Otero County also has taken its toll on the elected clerk, Robyn Holmes, who said she’s exasperated by the relentless hunt for fraud in elections that she says have run smoothly.
(Biden won New Mexico in 2020, but Trump took Otero County by more than 25 percentage points.)
“I feel like I’m being attacked, particularly by Commissioner Griffin,” said Holmes, a Republican who has worked on elections in Otero for nearly 15 years. “In all the years that I’ve been clerk, I’ve never had a commission doubt anything about our elections.”
Holmes is term limited and will leave office at the end of 2024.
“I just wish my term was up at the end of this year,” she added. “This has been pretty frustrating, this last year.”
Griffin’s term will end this year, and he’s not running for reelection.
(He survived a recall effort in 2021 and now is trying to fend off a lawsuit by a liberal-leaning watchdog group that argues that he should be removed from office and prohibited from running in the future under a constitutional ban against insurrectionists holding office.)
For his part, Griffin said he’s unlikely to ever seek elective office again. But he said he’s hoping for a Trump appointment to a federal job — possibly in forest management — should the former President run again in 2024 and win.
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