As the FBI puts election officials on high alert, Colorado right-wing media personalities are pushing violent rhetoric
Joe Oltmann, Tina Peters, and Sherronna Bishop push dangerous conspiracy theories that could make threats to election workers more likely
The FBI has put Colorado on heightened alert for threats against poll workers and other election officials, as right-wing media personalities in the state continue to push violent rhetoric and false narratives about voter fraud ahead of the upcoming midterms. Colorado is “one of the top states for threats to poll workers” according to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, as reported by Axios’ John Frank.
Colorado election administrators tell Axios Denver the scale of the threats exceeds the 2020 election, when unsubstantiated election conspiracies led to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Between the lines: The prevalence of threats in Colorado is driven in large part by the state's vocal believers of the Big Lie and supporters of indicted Mesa County clerk Tina Peters, whose primary recount is fueling the fire.
Peters, an election official charged with 10 counts of illegally breaching voting equipment and data, is joined in the Colorado election denialist scene by Joe Oltmann, a right-wing podcaster, and Sherronna Bishop, a close associate of Peters and another prominent election denier in the state.
Peters also pursued an ultimately futile recount effort in her attempt to win the 2022 Republican primary for secretary of state. The recount netted her 13 more votes, and her subsequent challenge was thrown out by a judge. Yet despite this failed effort and the lack of evidence to support any of the denialists’ key claims about the 2020 election, their debunked theories have taken hold among conservative activists across the state.
Now, “county clerks are reporting an increased number of election deniers applying for positions as poll watchers and election judges, giving them access to sensitive areas that could interfere with voting or ballot processing,” Frank writes.
“In Weld County, just north of Denver, all 35 poll watchers from the June primary were affiliated with election denial organizations,” Frank reported on a recent Axios podcast.;
A recent error by the Colorado secretary of state’s office mistakenly sent promotional material about registering to vote to around 30,000 non-citizens, a mistake that didn’t compromise voting rolls but which has nonetheless been used by Peters and other election denialists to argue that voter fraud is endemic.
Even a cursory examination of these figures’ recent public comments clearly illustrates how they have helped mainstream the false claims that voter fraud is widespread and that Democrats or other shadowy elites have rigged election machines and vote totals to stay in power – laying the groundwork for potential violence in the midterms, which are less than three weeks away.
In addition to facing multiple felony and misdemeanor charges related to her alleged 2020 election data breach, Peters is also a mainstay of the election denier media and conference circuit. Peters appeared on a stream for QAnon show Red Pill News on September 24, echoing her regular claims of a stolen election.
“During the election, the primary election, for my secretary of state race, at 11:30 at night, they were transferring votes from one candidate to another, and the people at the elections office had left at 10 p.m.,” Peters said. “Then when we made a big stink out of it the next day, they transferred them back over. You would have to be blind to think that they’re not manipulating the people’s vote.”
The previous month, Peters had also appeared on the show pushing the same debunked election conspiracy theories.
“People need to wake up,” Peters said. “Their elections have been stolen for a long time and now we’re on to them, and they’re fighting back — fighting back hard. So we have to stay vigilant, we have to do what we can do to get it done.”
Peters' election denialism has turned her into a cause célèbre to some in right-wing media, speaking at one of MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s clownish cyber security conferences and being championed by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, whose podcast has served as a platform for the country’s most vociferous election deniers. Her trial date for the election data breach case is scheduled for next March.
Joe Oltmann and Conservative Daily
Oltmann runs the podcast Conservative Daily, and has a long history of advocating violence against his political opponents. He frequently discusses hanging people, a punishment he sees as prescribed by the US Constitution for people who have committed treason.
In June, The Washington Post reported on Oltmann’s long litany of threats, including those directed toward Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.
“Stretch that rope,” he said, referring to Polis, before adding “I’m being funny. Why can’t you be a little funny?”
He has similarly fantasized about constructing gallows “all over the country” to carry out mass executions of traitors, and dragging people behind his car with enough rope so that “when their body parts fall off,” it “doesn’t get any blood on it.”
Rather than being chastised or contrite about the threats facing poll workers, Oltmann and his team have doubled down, claiming that “traitors” – which includes people he suggests are perpetrating voter fraud across the country – should be hanged.
On his October 17 show, Oltmann attacked 9 News’ Kyle Clark, who has reported on Oltmann’s calls for violence.
“They say that I have violent rhetoric,” Oltmann said, before addressing his co-host. “Apollo, what violent rhetoric have I actually stated?”
“You advocated for the Constitution, and the punishments for treason that are articulated in said Constitution, which is the law of this country,” Apollo dutifully responded.
“What’s the penalty for treason?” Oltmann asked.
“Up to and including death,” said Apollo.
“Yeah, and what have I said?” Oltmann continued. “That those that are guilty of treason should what?”
“Should be punished according to the Constitution,” Apollo offered.
“Hung,” Oltmann said, interrupting him. “Found guilty and hung.”
In addition to hosting his podcast, Oltmann runs a political group called FEC United – short for “Faith, Education and Commerce.” The group “has been advocating for candidates up and down the Colorado ballot, from key statewide positions to obscure county jobs,” according to The Washington Post. An El Paso election official said of Oltmann, “The level of his influence is extremely high.”
Oltmann also has close ties to a group called the United American Defense Force, as reported by News 9’s Clark, who referred to it as FEC United’s “militia arm.”
“They might outnumber us but they’re not going to outgun us,” UADF founder John Tiegen told attendees at an FEC United recruiting event. A welcome note on FEC United’s site, signed by Tiegen, sounds a similarly ominous tone. “When traditional systems of law and order fails us, we will have the ability to take care of ourselves, protect and defend against a domestic enemy,” the note reads.
Oltmann, for his part, doesn’t limit himself only to offering baseless election conspiracy theories: He reportedly accessed confidential election data from 2020 in Antrim County, Michigan, as part of a broader effort to breach and distribute the sensitive information. Like several other figures tied to that breach, Oltmann has appeared on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast.
Bishop is a strong supporter of Peters, having served as her campaign’s registered agent, the person responsible for filing financial disclosure reports and handling other official business with the state. She’s also volunteered with Rep. Lauren Boebert’s primary campaign and currently serves as the director of election security at anti-LGBTQ organization Moms for America.
Appearing alongside Peters in the August 20 episode of Everything Home with Michele Swinick, Bishop spoke openly about when violence might be necessary.
“Ayn Rand I think said it best when she said as long as the First Amendment is observed and honored and protected, then we don’t have to resort to violence,” Bishop said. “But once it’s no longer regarded in a free nation, then your only remedy becomes violence, and I believe that’s what the deep state is pushing us towards by going after people like me.”
Bishop was referencing the FBI’s search of her home last year on November 16. The FBI also searched the home of Peters that day, which would lead to the charges she’s currently facing. (Bishop hasn’t been charged in connection with that search.)
One month earlier, Bishop appeared on Steve Bannon’s War Room to malign current Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold. She was again joined by Peters.
The two were in the process of raising money for Peters’ ultimately doomed recount effort, which Peters financed largely by appearing on Bannon’s podcast. When the recount failed to uncover mass voter fraud or change the outcome of the primary, Peters sued Griswold’s office, alleging the recount was handled improperly. A judge dismissed that lawsuit, which Griswold’s office said was “based on debunked conspiracies that have been rejected by judges in previous cases.”
On the July 26 episode, Bishop attacked “the political elites determining our future while we all suffer under their hand,” including “trying to dictate our lives and our elected officials,” before calling Griswold a “coward and a liar.”
“These liars, these criminals, Jena Griswold and her posse, are going to be exposed,” she continued. “Remember, she is the head of the Democrat Association of Secretaries of State for the entire nation, and so what happens in Colorado follows to the rest of the country.”
A nationwide trend
The trends that election officials are warning about in Colorado are not limited to that state. Even if some of the media figures and politicians are different, other states like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Wisconsin are seeing similar threats against poll workers and elected officials, according to a recent FBI briefing.
“It's unnerving,” Kim Wyman, the senior election lead at the nation's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), told CBS News in her first TV interview since accepting her new role. “Threats like ‘we're going to hang you.’ And ‘I hope somebody puts a bullet in your head.’”
Conspiracy theorist and Gateway Pundit founder Jim Hoft recently laid out a seven-point plan to disrupt the regular administration of elections that would result in chaos if it was followed: A major aspect of his plan is targeted surveillance and implicit harassment of election workers.
This activity isn’t just limited to junk news sites like The Gateway Pundit and podcasts like Bannon’s. Recent reporting in The New York Times found that the “extensive network” of organized election deniers “includes Republican Party officials, mainstream conservative groups and the most conspiracy-minded corners of the election denial movement.”
Central to that effort is Cleta Mitchell, a Republican lawyer and one of the key architect’s of former President Donald Trump’s plans to overturn the 2020 election. The Republican National Committee reportedly “sent both its national and state election integrity directors” to a training Mitchell ran, according to The New York Times. This month alone, Mitchell has called for conservatives to volunteer to be poll watchers in counties they don’t live in, praised and shared bogus election integrity research from QAnon influencers, and promoted an upcoming training that will be attended by fellow coup architect and Trump lawyer John Eastman.
There is no evidence that the upcoming midterm elections will be rigged, tampered with, or insecure as a result of voter fraud or nefarious activity by election officials or the equipment they use. But right-wing media figures like Oltmann, Peters, and Bishop risk causing disruptions to the safe administration of the midterms, and could be putting election workers in jeopardy.