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S2E11 – Keeping Elections Running in Mesa County, Colorado with Stephanie Wenholz

Mesa County, Colorado, has been in the election’s world spotlight since Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters was accused of election tampering in August 2021. Since then, she has been indicted by a Mesa County grand jury on seven felony and three misdemeanor counts of election tampering and misconduct related to the alleged May 2021 security breach.

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Mesa County Elections Manager Stephanie Wenholz about what it was like in the Mesa County office during that tumultuous time and how she keeps herself, and her staff, going despite the controversy.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Brianna Lennon: Hey there High Turnout Wide Margins listeners. This is Brianna and Eric. We hope you've been enjoying listening to the recent episodes about the state of democracy in Eastern Europe, as much as we've enjoyed bringing them to you.

Eric Fey: We have a lot more of those conversations still to come this season, but we're going to step away from those conversations for the next several episodes, because as you all know, we have an election coming up right here in the U.S. in November.

The High Turnout Wide Margins team recently attended the Election Center Conference, which is put on annually by the National Association of Election Officials, and while we were there, we were able to connect with a number of our colleagues from across the country, and we talked to them about a number of topics and especially what's on their mind leading into the November election.

Brianna Lennon: In this episode, we got to sit down with Stephanie Wenholz from Mesa County, Colorado. Right now, she is a grand jury witness for an ongoing investigation, and so we wanted to brief you in advance that some of the questions that we asked and some of the statements that she makes may sound vague, but we want to give you a little bit of context about how things are developing in Mesa County.

Eric Fey: Talking about the whole kerfuffle that Mesa County has been through since the 2020 election, in particular, the Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters – in the run up to the November 2020 election, her and her deputy essentially allowed unauthorized folks into the office to witness parts of the election build process and then to make a copy of some of the election software that they use. Parts of this violated multiple Colorado laws. The clerk was subsequently indicted and is facing trial.

Through all that, what's amazing is that the rest of the Mesa County Clerk's Office continued to work and pulled off not one, but several elections since then, and it's a, I think it's a great story for all election administrators and it goes with one of the themes from our podcast – in that election administrators are doers – and these people just kept doing what they were, what they love to do – and that was to serve the voters of Mesa County. So, I hope you all enjoyed listening.

Brianna Lennon: We wanted to provide some context to the interview that you're going to be listening to with Stephanie Wenholz in Mesa County, in their election’s office, because it's one of the more incredible stories that came out of the 2020 election.

The Mesa County Clerk's Office – the head of that office was Tina Peters, and she was one of the, maybe one of the only election administrators in the country that really kind of fell into the conspiracy theory rabbit hole and worked very closely with a couple of the individuals that have been pushing a lot of these ideas that the election had been stolen in 2020.

And she not only, you know, started believing these things and was really interested in the kind of narratives that they had, but she actually aided them in trying to provide additional documentation and copies of her own election databases and things like that, which were not allowed under the law.

Colorado has a very strict administrative protocol for how the elections get programmed, for how they get tested , or who is allowed to be in the room when all of the election programming is done, and she bent the rules in a lot of different ways in order to allow some of these individuals access to information that they should not have had.

And at this point, not only has she lost her position as the County Clerk, she then decided to run for the Colorado Secretary of State's office and lost that as well. She requested a recount, and that was also unsuccessful, and she's now facing a trial where she will have several of the people that worked in the office with her testify against everything that she had done.

So, she has a lot of pending charges and it's still very much an active case, and so we appreciate being able to talk to Stephanie about her experience in the office.

We'll let you introduce yourself, but we really – just first thank you for doing this and for talking with us, and we know that you've been having a rough time. So, we extra appreciate it. You are kind of a celebrity at this point – I think known across the country by elections administrators that know how hard it is to do the work anyway, but particularly right now in Mesa. So, thank you very much.

Stephanie Wenholz: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. So, yeah, my name is Stephanie Wenholz. I'm the Elections Manager for Mesa County, Colorado.

Brianna Lennon: And our first question is always how did you end up working in elections in the first place?

Stephanie Wenholz: Um, actually, my first election was in 2008. So, I was living up in Gilpin County, and I actually happened to be laid off with the city of Central. So, they were having money issues, and I was like, “Okay, well, I'll just work at the county,” and so, I started over at the county and just kind of got into elections that way.

So, it was kind of it like everybody else. It's like by default – never even thought about this. I mean, you don't really think about this unless you're in elections – how the ballot gets to you, what that whole entire process is. I mean, you see, like the “TV version” of it, like, “Oh, this is your candidate,” but you don't see like that back portion of it.

Eric Fey: So, Stephanie – how long have you been at Mesa County now?

Stephanie Wenholz: I have now been there for about two and a half years. So I started there, right after the presidential primary. So, I was a recommendation from the Secretary of State's office. They said, “Hey, there are some small issues going on and they really need some help. Can you go help them out?” So, there was about 500 ballots that were found in a ballot box that was right in front of the office, and I was like, “Hey, easy. We can do some, you know, best practices, and make sure everybody's on the same page when they're actually administer, are like with our judges,” and that's where I started.

Eric Fey: So, that's a thing in Colorado? Like if a county runs into an issue, the Secretary of State might recommend somebody?

Stephanie Wenholz: Well, I had applied to the position. So, the position for an elections manager actually came up in December, and so they went back through, and then I got a phone call one random Sunday afternoon – actually Sunday evening, and said, “Hey, are you still interested in, you know, this position?” And my grandparents actually live out there. They're getting older, and so I was like, “Hey, yeah, I'll come check it out and see what else I can do.” So I had just recently left Arapahoe County at that time, so…

Eric Fey: So, does the does the County Clerk hire you and the people in your position? And did you know the County Clerk before you went to work there? Anything about her?

Stephanie Wenholz: No, I actually did not know Tina prior to any of this. I actually didn't know anything about her. I had heard about the 500 ballots on Denver news, but that was about it – nothing else.

Then, yes, she does hire us. So, I went through an actual interview process. So, I drove out to Grand Junction, interviewed, and they offered me the position. So, and honestly, it was a little odd. The team didn't realize I was even coming. So I walked into the front door and said, “Hi, I'm the new Elections Manager,” and there were like wide eyes. Everybody's going “what's going on,” and so, they had no clue.

And there was a big push to get me into that office at the time, because there were three people leaving, and I joke with a lot of people who are still there who are still part of our team. I was like, “Hey, could have warned a sister,” you know? But I believe that there was a higher purpose for me being out there. I didn't see it at the time. I just thought, “Oh, this is going to be fun. I can really do a lot of good being an elections manager. There's a lot of things I want to help Colorado grow,” and I thought that was a great opportunity. I just never thought I'd be in this position before and being kind of catapulted in like the spotlight this way. So, I never in all my wildest years ever thought something like this could have ever happened.

Brianna Lennon: So, the Elections Manager position. What exactly does that entail in the office that you were in? Or what was it supposed to entail? It might not be exactly what it was supposed to be now, but what was it supposed to be?

Stephanie Wenholz: So, a lot of it – so I actually had a job description. So my job description included, you know, writing IGAs [intergovernmental agreements], implementing policies for election judges. I mean, kinda like the typical day to day – the voter registration, being responsible for that, and just managing the team. Really just being able to get a good team in there and being able to have a successful team. So, I think we have done that – especially in the times that we have, we have a great team. So, I'm very proud of them.

Eric Fey: So this might be a good time now – you were starting to get into it, Stephanie, but I guess let's dig right into November 2020, and, I guess, more specifically – post-election.

Stephanie Wenholz: Yes.

Eric Fey: What happened? I think probably most of the folks that listen to this podcast, probably know, but there may be people who don't. So, for the uninitiated – explain what went down in Mesa County.

Stephanie Wenholz: So honestly, the 2020 election was actually extremely successful. So, you know, that night, we were excited, you know, both Brandi [Bantz, the county’s director of elections] and I – we had tears in our eyes, we were excited. We had another successful election – everything balanced. Not a problem. And then, I can't even remember the date, but rewind, or, you know, fast forward and all of a sudden, we get this press release saying that our office is under investigation and that's not a good thing.

I mean, I've been in elections long enough to know, that's not a good thing, and we're like, “what's going on?” We have really not a clue. I'm crying. I mean, to be very honest, I'm crying. This is like devastating, and it was very hard – I'm sorry – because we had not a clue what was going on, and at that point, they decided they were going to send our team home for until further notice.

Eric Fey: So, I'm sorry, real quick, who's they?

Stephanie Wenholz: So, that was Belinda [Knisely, the Deputy County Clerk] and Tina [Peters, County Clerk]. I do apologize. So, Belinda and Tina had decided that they were going to send the team home until further notice.

Eric Fey: And they are the Clerk and Deputy Clerk.

Stephanie Wenholz: That is correct. So, Tina is the Clerk. Belinda is the Deputy Clerk.

And we are like dumbfounded. We're not exactly sure like what's going to happen next. We're not getting a whole lot of information, and to be very honest, people weren't allowed to talk to us, because they were doing, they were conducting an actual investigation. So, you really felt like an island under your – like all on your own, you know, you sit in your kitchen and you're still processing voter registration, because there's still a job to do. You still need to continue moving forward, and you need to keep a positive outlook. Like “this will pass,” you know, “we can get through this,” and it was hard. So, three weeks we're sitting at our office, and then things kind of started to develop.

Eric Fey: Did you know at that point what the investigation was about?

Stephanie Wenholz: So, not 100%? I mean, we kind of heard that passwords were leaked and with that, that point, we were like trying to figure out what was going on and “okay, how is this going to unfold?”

Brianna Lennon: Frankly, honestly, I'm just wondering why you stayed. I mean, like I try to think of if something were to happen not, you know, I don't know – if something were to happen in Missouri or something like that, it takes a lot of dedication to the profession to want to stay, and, you know, why did you… why did you stay?

Stephanie Wenholz: I love my job. I actually love being a part of elections, and I'm kind of one of those individuals… It’s a lie. So, I know it's all a lie. So, I'm like, “let's just continue moving forward.” So, you try keeping that best attitude in the office – continue to move forward and honestly, I can't see myself doing anything else. I love it. So, even despite all this stuff, I mean, we all have challenges, and so, you kind of have to get in that mindset of like, “No, you know, this is just another hurdle. So let's, let's take it one step at a time and keep moving forward.”

Eric Fey: Can you explain a little bit more about what, what ended up happening with the Clerk? And, I think, the Deputy Clerk? Because honestly, I don't know all the details of – I mean, the public details – you said, there might have been passwords leaked. So what does that mean? Like what happened?

Stephanie Wenholz: So actually, it had been determined that our BIOS [basic input/output system] passwords were leaked during the trusted build, and there was an individual that was in that trusted build that was not an actual employee. It’s actually a felony…

Eric Fey: Can you explain – I apologize for continuing to interrupt you.

Stephanie Wenholz: It’s okay.

Eric Fey: But I think the term “trusted build” is even for election ministers and other states, they may not use that term, or know that term. So, could you explain what that trusted build is?

Stephanie Wenholz: So, the trusted build is basically like a software update to the voting systems because the voting system is not connected to the internet. So, like any other computer, it needs to have updates and stuff to it. So, that is pretty much what that is and then there's a team of everybody who's a part of that.

Typically, you have cameras, all that type of stuff on when that's going on – just to build that, you know, voter confidence – but I was told that I wouldn't be participating in that and then just a few months later found out that during that trusted build, that passwords were actually shared.

So, the Secretary of State Office has a password that we don't have, and then we have another password. So, it has that kind of two factor security measure so that a bad actor won't be able to go in and, you know, try stealing stuff out of the system. So, yeah, like I said, that was kind of devastating – just to hear that stuff was being leaked, and then, you know, being sent home not exactly sure what was going on. Our clerk wasn't in the office at the time. So, the day of she was in the office, and was like, “yeah, it's not a big deal,” and we're like, “No, this is really a big deal.” And then we hadn't seen her for a really, really long time, and then we found out she was at that cyber symposium and that's where it kind of just like, blew up.

And then things, you know, you're like, you start realizing going, “okay,” you know, where… I oftentimes I think, what could I have done to stop this, so we wouldn't be in this situation? And there's some things I can't discuss because I am a grand jury witness. So, I'm trying to go around that. I do apologize. But it was really hard to see that, you know, Tina up at the cyber symposium talking about all this stuff, and that she's going to expose something that doesn't happen at all.

Prior to that, I was we were told that we had to go see Dr. Frank, and his information and him explaining his rationale on how everybody has the same election, and he couldn't explain his algorithm, and I was like, “Okay, this doesn't make any sense,” and it was probably the most uncomfortable thing I've ever attended in my life. And so you can kind of see like the footwork of all this like developing, but at the time, when you're in it, you didn't realize what was going on. So it was, it was pretty devastating.

I'm very thankful for, you know, like the Secretary of State's office, our commissioners. Our commissioners back us, and I appreciate that. They're amazing. I'm not sure if we could have done this without them. We have a great county attorney, and their support has meant the world. So, that's one of the things why, you know, I can stay upbeat and positive about this and that we can continue to move forward.

Brianna Lennon: How's it affected, like voters’ perception in the office, and I know you were relatively new coming into it anyway, but have you gotten – I mean, she's drawn a pretty big support base of her own – do you feel pressures from people that agree with her? Or has it been pretty quiet?

Stephanie Wenholz: No, we've seen it. So, we've actually invited those individuals – like they've actually done the canvass, going door to door knocking on the doors, asking people how they voted, we've actually got some of that information – and we were like, this person you're seeing doesn't have vote credit, but I can actually see in the, the database that they do have vote credits. So, they did vote, and there's that misconception there. And we'd get phone calls from individuals saying, “Hey, this person just came by and said I don't have any vote credit,” you know, look up that information – I show vote credit.

We'd have those people come into the office, same thing, and just being able to sit down and actually talk to those individuals. We're very open to have people come in, so we can talk to them about the process. We encourage people to be watchers, we encourage them to be election judges, and there have been people who are election judges, and they're like, “We didn't know this about the process.” And some of them have like that aha moment of like, “I've just been lied to,” and they – you can see it, and it's getting a little bit more quiet. So, I appreciate – it's not as in our face like it was in the beginning.

Eric Fey: Can you explain for folks listening how your office has continued on since this all has happened? I mean, just to in broad strokes, my understanding is that the Clerk was indicted, right? And so, she has been – I don't know the correct term – but she had been removed from the day-to-day functioning of the office, and so you all have been left in some capacity to run the election portion of the County Clerk's Office. So, can you explain what's been going on and how that's been managed since this time?

Stephanie Wenholz: Honestly, nothing has changed. I mean, we're still doing the day-to-day process. We still have everything. Oftentimes, it's the staff who's doing the work. So, you know, we already know, we're still continuing with those IGAs, we're still continuing, you know, with recruiting election workers. We're still, you know, keeping our team going up, doing the voter registration process – all of that stuff. So nothing really changed. So, it was still like, “okay, we're just going to continue to move forward.” There is noise from the outside, but let's ignore that noise and let's keep moving forward.

Then, in 2022, a new order came about, and that actually then gave Brandi [Bantz], who's the elections director, the designated election official. So, there's a little bit more emphasis on us just as a team, and we have really built that team atmosphere. We're there for each other. We can bounce things off of each other and have that support system. So it's, honestly, it's kind of just status quo and same as always – just keep going forward. A little bit more pressure because you're definitely under the spotlight, but you know, that's what you do – you just keep moving forward.

Brianna Lennon: What do you what do you want other local election authorities to know about Mesa County?

Stephanie Wenholz: Um. That we provide a secure election. That there are many people in that office that have integrity and believe in the election process. And that – I don't know, I mean, so much. I'm looking forward to our future. That there's a lot of like things I want to do. I want to be able to catapult our office to like the next level. I want our office to be the ones to contact. I also want people to know that if they have a problem that we're there for them, too. That we are a part of their support system – so, to be able to reach out to us at any time and just say, “Hey, I've got this problem,” and I don't care if you're in any other state, you know, call us and we will be there to help you. So, just knowing that we are – we're all a team together all over the United States. I believe in all election officials, and we're all going through the same thing. We might do some things a little bit differently, but we're all together.

Eric Fey: Last season on the podcast – Oh, gosh, his name is escaping me. From Jefferson County, Colorado?

Brianna Lennon: Oh, George!

Stephanie Wenholz: George.

Eric Fey: Yes, he made a statement that has stuck with me and I have requoted it time and time again, and he said “election officials are doers,” you know, there are a lot of politicians out there they talk or you know, people, pundants meet and whatever, but election officials have to go in every day and do the work and serve the voters and – I'm getting a little choked up thinking about this – when has there ever been more of the epitome of that? Then what you all have done? I mean, you said, they sent you all home and you kept working – serving the voters. It's an amazing story and kudos to you.

Stephanie Wenholz : Yeah. I mean, that's just what you do – you just go in and you still keep doing it, and he's right, you “do.” It's that drive just to continue to serve the voters. I mean, we all know, we don't do this for the money by any means, but you do it for the love of it. I mean, my first election, I was so excited, because it was the 2008 election, and you're a part of history. You are just in the thick of it, and you're having fun – you get to meet great people who are in the community, and I really appreciate that and that's what just keeps you moving forward.

So, that's my – I stole that from “Meet the Robinsons” – and I was like, “Yes, that's true,” and that was kind of like one of the things that I kept telling the team is like, “keep moving forward.” They call me the Mama Bear and I really am. I try to keep my team, you know, upbeat. I really want to do – I want to make them better. I want them to be better than me.

Brianna Lennon: You've been listening to "High Turnout, Wide Margins," a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Brianna Lennon, alongside Eric Fey.

A big thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our managing editor is Rebecca Smith. Our managing producer is Aaron Hay. And our associate producers are Abigail Ruhman and Katie Quinn. This has been "High Turnout, Wide Margins." Thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.