Jena Griswold is sworn in as Colorado Secretary of State on Tuesday Jan. 8, 2019 on the west steps of the state Capitol.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Secretary of State Jena Griswold said she intentionally wore a suffragette-white suit to her inauguration Tuesday morning to underscore her commitment to voter rights.

Griswold is an Estes Park native who worked as a voter rights attorney in the Obama administration. This is her first time in public office.

Colorado's first elected Democratic Secretary of State in 60 years is part of a 2018 blue wave that swept the state's executive branch. Griswold won over voters with her progressive voter access platform as well as her promise to maintain election security gains made by her predecessor, Wayne Williams.

Griswold talked to Colorado Matters about her first moves as Secretary of State.

Interview Highlights

On expanding Colorado's automatic voter registration programs:

"It’s shifting the burden from opting in to voting—or to registering to vote, I should say—to opting out of registering to vote. So, for example, when you go to the DMV now—and this was something that was set up under my predecessor—the DMV worker will say I’m going to sign you up to vote unless you want to opt out. So, that’s already working. We really want to tighten how the DMV system is working right now and then expand outwards from the DMV system. It’s a focal point of mine that government should meet people where they are, and they may be decreasingly not at the DMV.

The first natural place to expand is actually Connect for Health Colorado and places that offer Medicaid services. And the reason for that is because those locations are already collecting whether or not someone who’s using the system is a citizen or not."

On strengthening campaign finance laws in Colorado:

"Campaign finance reform is about making sure that we stop dark secret hidden money. It’s about stopping secret political contributions. And at the end of the day, it’s about strengthening our democracy. Look, we can expand access to the ballot but we need to make sure that Coloradan voices are not getting drowned out by secret political spending.

Citizens United prevents us from stopping money, but we can shine sunshine onto secret political spending so that Coloradans know who’s trying to influence their elections and how they’re trying to do it. 

I’d like to see a big legislative package for campaign finance reform so that we’re a national leader. And I think Coloradans and most legislators that I’ve spoken with are very supportive of making sure political spending is transparent. I’m optimistic we’re going to have a great legislative session for campaign finance reform."

On how wearing a white pantsuit to her inauguration reflects her goals:

"Well we just—we’re in the 100th anniversary from the passage of the 19th Amendment and I think it’s really important to look how far the nation has come, but also really to focus on where we need to go. Just this last election, we can look toward Georgia, Florida, North Dakota, North Carolina, to see that the fight for civil rights and for voting rights is not over. And that’s what I hope to do—one of the things I hope to do—as Secretary of State is make sure that we have the most accessible elections in the nation and a democracy that all Coloradans can believe in.

So the white represents the Suffragists and all the women who fought for voting rights. So we were doing a call out to all of the women who fought for all of our rights but again, it’s not only about women’s rights. It’s about all of our civil rights and our voting rights."

Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: You’re with Colorado Matters from CPR News. I’m Ryan Warner and this is the first full day on the job for Colorado’s Governor, Jared Polis. But not just him. A slate of new state-wide officeholders have now been sworn in—Attorney General, Treasurer and Secretary of State.

[plays audio recording]

Colorado Supreme Court Justice Nathan B. Coats: Repeat after me. I, Jena Marie Griswold.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold: I, Jena Marie Griswold.

NC: Do swear.

JG: Do swear.

NC: That I will support the Constitution of the United States.

JG: That I will support the Constitution . . .

[end audio recording]

RW: Jena Griswold is the first Democrat to be elected to this office in 60 years. This is an office that oversees everything from election security to business registration. Griswold grew up in Estes Park. She was a voting rights attorney in the Obama Administration. This is her first time in elected office and Secretary Griswold, welcome to the program.

JG: Thank you for having me, Ryan.

RW: How did that feel? How does it feel hearing it again?

JG: Well it feels great. I’m honored to be Colorado’s Secretary of State and I had a great first day and an even better second day being here with you to talk about our vision for the office.

RW: That’s very kind. I understand you wore a white pants suit and I’m not in the habit of asking about the sartorial choices of our guests, unless there’s a real story there so what’s the story behind the white pants suit?

JG: Well we just—we’re in the 100th anniversary from the passage of the 19th Amendment and I think it’s really important to look how far the nation has come, but also really to focus on where we need to go. Just this last election, we can look toward Georgia, Florida, North Dakota, North Carolina, to see that the fight for civil rights and for voting rights is not over. And that’s what I hope to do—one of the things I hope to do—as Secretary of State is make sure that we have the most accessible elections in the nation and a democracy that all Coloradans can believe in.

RW: Okay, and that pants suit was an embodiment of this vision I guess.

JG: Yeah. So the white represents the Suffragists and all the women who fought for voting rights. So we were doing a call out to all of the women who fought for all of our rights but again, it’s not only about women’s rights. It’s about all of our civil rights and our voting rights.

RW: Okay. Election security certainly looms large with a presidential election next year. What are Colorado’s vulnerabilities right now?

JG: Well to start with, we have some of the securest elections in the nation and we are secure as of today. But with any type of cyber security, the cyberattacks are always moving, they’re shifting. So we have to make sure that we’re innovating with the potential attacks.

RW: How do you do this? How do you, in a way, keep ahead of something?

JG: Well we have the best IT team of any elections division in the nation. That’s first. We do tests. We have partnerships with Department of Homeland Security. And I’ll tell you what. I’ve been really focused on election security. I want to make sure that 2020 continues to have above the board elections that are secure to have all of our voices heard. And one of the things I’ve been really surprised about is that my second meeting—so first official meeting with Department of Homeland Security to discuss our election security—was actually canceled because of the Trump shutdown. So, regardless—to put it in perspective that means that we’ve already talked to DHS before assuming office and we’re going to continue to have—

RW: But that second meeting was canceled as you were saying.

JG: It was canceled.

RW: Is Colorado’s system being attacked daily and it’s just that we’re fending those attacks off or what?

JG: Most systems are being attacked daily.

RW: Mm-hmm.

JG: So, we have—look, I could go down a list of things that—I literally have a list of 20 things that we’re doing that other states aren’t doing. We have—

RW: Give us one of them.

JG: Well, penetration testing. We actually tried to hack our own systems to see where the vulnerabilities are. And it’s not only the Secretary of State’s office trying to hack the systems. We asked DHS to hack the systems. They did it last year and were unable to do that. We asked private companies to try to infiltrate our systems. We also try to find whether systems have already been penetrated and to see if there’s any bad actors within the system. It’s called a hunt. And in all the hunts we’ve done and the Department of Homeland Security has done, they have not found anything of major concern.

RW: You say that we’re the only state doing some of that?

JG: Well, one of the only states.

RW: Okay, let’s talk about automatic voter registration because this was a theme of your campaign as a way to get more people to vote. What exactly is automatic voter registration?

JG: So, it’s shifting the burden from opting in to voting—or to registering to vote, I should say—to opting out of registering to vote. So, for example, at the DMV, when you go to the DMV now—and this was something that was set up under my predecessor—the DMV worker will say I’m going to sign you up to vote unless you want to opt out. So, that’s already working. We really want to tighten how the DMV system is working right now and then expand outwards from the DMV system. You know, younger people living in big cities are driving less and less. I think that we can expect driverless car technology over the next decade. So it’s a focal point of mine that government should meet people where they are and they may be decreasingly not at the DMV.

RW: Yeah, the DMV might be a quaint vestige of an automobile age but where else would you meet the voter?

JG: Expand, sure. So, the first natural place to expand is actually Connect for Health Colorado and places that offer Medicaid services. And the reason for that is because those locations are already collecting whether or not someone who’s using the system is a citizen or not. So, it’s a place in government already asking hey, are you a citizen or are you not a citizen and verifying that. And then, we can ask the people who are yes, I’m a citizen, I’m getting enrolled on the state healthcare platform, ask them if them want to opt out of being registered to vote.

RW: Connect for Health is the exchange.

JG: That’s exactly right. And, you know, Medicaid users in Colorado—it’s about 22 percent of Coloradans so we’re touching a lot of people if we’re able to expand in that way.

RW: I just want to note that Republicans in the State Senate are concerned about some of the staff you’re hiring. The accusation is that you’ve chosen political operatives. Senator Jerry Sonnenberg is quoted in a press release as saying, “Jena Griswold has sent a strong signal that as Secretary of State, she’s going to prioritize politics over free and fair elections”. What’s your response?

JG: Well, look, the reason I ran and I was very clear on the campaign trail, is that I believe that every eligible person, whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent, should have access to accessible and secure elections. That’s why I ran. That’s how I will operate as Secretary of State.

RW: But are there super, uber, lefty people that you’re hiring that indicate that this won’t be universally applied?

JG: No, there are people who have worked in, on Democratic campaigns but they all have a history of working across the aisle. My Deputy Secretary of State is coming from Common Cause which is a non-partisan NGO focused on democracy issues. And I want to say look, I’m disappointed with this release because when it comes to our democracy, Colorado is not focused and Coloradans are not focused on partisan politics. And what I do hope is that the senators are able to focus on solutions and can leave the partisan attacks so that we make sure that we’re building a democracy in Colorado that all Coloradans can be believe in.

RW: You’re listening to Colorado Matters from CPR News. I’m Ryan Warner and I’m speaking with Jena Griswold. She was just sworn in as Colorado’s Secretary of State and her office is in charge of all kinds of things in Colorado. That is, not just election security but also new business registration and you’ve said you want to make it easier for people to launch their own businesses. Colorado has seen huge growth in new business formation, I’ll say. What do you think gets in the way of even more growth?

JG: Well, you know, folks who have never opened a business before may not know how to. You know, I grew up very working class in Estes Park. I’m the first person in my family—

RW: It’s an interesting place to grow up—Estes Park.

JG: Yeah. And to share a little bit of my background that may be unique is that we grew up on food stamps. We grew up going to food banks. I’m the first person in my family to go to a four-year college then law school. And so, I know that there’s a lot of people who, like me, are opening businesses for the first time and they should not have to contract—I’m a lawyer. New business owners should not have to hire a lawyer to open a business. So, what I would like to do—

RW: Do they do that often now?

JG: Well I’m not sure that they hire lawyers but a lot of times it’s easy to be non-compliant when you’re opening your business because government is not streamlined for new business owners. We want to make sure that when you open your LLC that you know you have to opt in or out of unemployment, of workman’s comp. Look, if you’re located in the county of Denver, you have to do some registration with the county. I live up in Louisville. You don’t have to do registration there. So, what I don’t want is red tape to tangle up new business owners and then at the end of the day, they be hit with big fines because government is too bureaucratic.

RW: I certainly heard from the previous administration—the Hickenlooper Administration—the desire to get rid of red tape. You think that there’s still red tape to tear down, huh?

JG: I think there’s governmental bureaucracy and citizens expect government to be streamlined. It often is not so we have to continue to work across agencies to provide solutions and good platforms to the people of Colorado.

RW: Okay. I wonder how closely you have worked and will work with Governor Polis. What have your conversations been like?

JG: Well, I’m really excited to work with Governor Polis. You know, one of the major reasons that I ran outside of expanding access to elections is campaign finance reform. I think Governor Polis is excited about campaign finance reform.

RW: This is a Governor who spent millions of his own dollars to run for office.

JG: That’s right. So campaign finance reform is about making sure that we stop dark secret hidden money. It’s about stopping secret political contributions. And at the end of the day, it’s about strengthening our democracy. Look, we can expand access to the ballot but we need to make sure that Coloradan voices are not getting drowned out by secret political spending.

RW: But doesn’t Citizens United, to some extent, tie your hands in this regard?

JG: Well, Citizens United prevents us from stopping money but we can shine sunshine onto secret political spending so that Coloradans know who’s trying to influence their elections and how they’re trying to do it.

RW: Is that something that you have to work with the legislature to achieve?

JG: I can do some by rule making, some by legislation. I’d like to see a big legislative package for campaign finance reform so that we’re a national leader. And I think Coloradans and most legislators that I’ve spoken with are very supportive of making sure political spending is transparent and I’m optimistic we’re going to have a great legislative session for campaign finance reform.

RW: Jena, it’s nice to meet you. Thanks for stopping by.

JG: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.

RW: Jena Griswold is Colorado’s new Secretary of State.