A dispute between factions of the El Paso County Republican Party over whether to ask school board candidates to answer questions about election integrity and voting equipment ramped up this week, with one party officer resigning, another finding his official party email address had been disabled and the county party distributing two competing sets of candidate questionnaires.
Both questionnaires — emailed to the 31 registered Republicans running in nonpartisan school board races across the county — contain questions about critical race theory and whether schools should impose mask or vaccine mandates.
But one also includes questions inspired by former President Donald Trump's allegations contrary to the evidence that he lost last year's election due to widespread voter fraud, while the other instead asked questions about school choice and what constitutes a "strong civics education."
Results from both surveys are supposed to be posted to the county GOP's website and emailed to Republican voters, who have until Nov. 2 to return ballots.
Members of the county GOP's executive committee — essentially, the party's board of directors — raised concerns last week about the questions sent by county party chairwoman Vickie Tonkins asking candidates if they wanted to eliminate Dominion Voting Systems equipment and would support a "full forensic audit" of last year's election in Colorado, according to party emails reviewed by Colorado Politics.
Citing possible "unintended legal issues with a few of the questions," the executive committee — made up of state legislators, county-level elected officials and party stalwarts chosen by precinct leaders — voted on Oct. 4 to rewrite some of the questions and recall the survey sent by Tonkins, an email summarizing the meeting said.
In particular, a question asking if candidates will "vote to terminate" any district superintendent who supports mask or vaccine mandates could have legal implications, said a member of the executive committee who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely about private deliberations.
The questions about Dominion equipment and auditing the 2020 Colorado vote, on the other hand, were deemed areas where the school board candidates "could have zero impact," so committee members voted to drop them in favor of questions focusing "more on the local school issues," according to the email summary.
The committee "nearly unanimously" approved each of the questions on the new survey and instructed Tonkins to withdraw the first one.
But Tonkins doubled down, refusing to abide by the committee's decision and later emailing results of the initial questionnaire to thousands of county voters.
"Despite illegitimate attempts by some moderate party members to shield the truth on where candidates stand, there will be no change in the survey questions sent out and the results will be posted soon... so stay tuned," Tonkins said in an email to Colorado Politics.
She also disabled the party email address used by the county GOP's vice chairman, Karl Schneider, after he distributed an account of the executive committee meeting to the larger central committee.
That's partly what led John Pitchford, the county party treasurer long considered a staunch Tonkins ally, to announce on Tuesday that he plans to resign next week after his successor has a chance to get up to speed.
“It is unfortunate that John would be willing to resign over the vice-chair violating the bylaws and communication policies," Tonkins said in an email, referencing the reason she gave for pulling the plug on Schneider's email address. "Nevertheless, we acknowledge John’s contributions to our local party and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”
Pitchford didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
"The chair of the party, on her own accord and contrary to the executive committee's direction, did not comply with their direction," Schneider said in an interview.
He added that the committee was able to work with state GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown to send out the approved set of questions and "get those responses published, so that voters can make a well-informed and unbiased, uninfluenced decision."
Joe Jackson, executive director of the Colorado GOP, said in a text message Tuesday that Brown "has tried hard to find a solution that works for everyone, so that voters get important answers from their candidates."
Even though school board and municipal elections in Colorado are nonpartisan, Republicans and Democrats have been encouraging their voters to turn out in the off-year election, stressing the importance of electing like-minded officials at the local level.
Results of Tonkins' initial survey — including the election integrity questions — showed up over the weekend on the county GOP website under the heading "Official Survey Results."
According to the survey results, just seven of the 31 Republican candidates answered all the questions — and all seven answered them the same way, indicating they oppose teaching critical race theory, oppose mask and vaccine mandates, agree to fire any superintendent who takes a contrary position, support eliminating Dominion equipment and favor auditing last year's vote.
"Too often, candidates and politicians dodge simple 'yes' or 'no' questions and the voters are worse off for it," the site says, alongside a list of 19 candidates who didn't return the survey or who didn't answer every question. (Five of the candidates couldn't be reached, the site says.)
"While we won’t officially oppose or support any one candidate, it should be important to note who is willing to answer the hard questions and who is not," the county GOP's site says.
Schneider said that in addition to the substance of some of the questions on the initial survey, executive committee members were also bothered by the tone of the questionnaire, which demanded that candidates only answer "yes" or "no" and said incomplete surveys would be described as non-responsive.
"The way in which the party chair published the initial set of questions biased the responses by putting the commentary that the candidates refused to answer the questions," he said.
"It is potentially mischaracterizing the circumstances surrounding the response or non-response of the candidates. In fact, in my letter to the candidates I told them explicitly that when the email comes out from the state (Republican Party) with their response, the only commentary will say, 'These are the responses received.' There will be no commentary shading or improperly trying to shade the responses."
He added that as of Tuesday night, his county party email address hadn't been restored.