The race to run Colorado’s elections

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4min 39sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Candidates for Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (left), the Democratic incumbent, and Pam Anderson, the Republican challenger.

Of all the Colorado races drawing attention this year, the contest for Secretary of State doesn’t necessarily rank that high.

It didn’t always look like it was going to be that way.

The candidacy of Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters — who faces criminal charges for allegedly violating the security of her office’s election equipment in a search for purported fraud — put Colorado on the list of states where election deniers were vying to oversee the election system.

But Peters lost her GOP primary — decisively — to Pam Anderson, a former head of the Clerk’s Association who has made standing up for the state’s election model central to her campaign.  

Still, false claims about election fraud, and how to handle them, remain central to a race in which, on many of the big issues, the Republican and Democratic candidates agree more than they disagree. 

Jena Griswold casts herself as a defender of the election system during a moment of political crisis

Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold is running, in part, on her efforts to defend the election system in the face of threats from people like Peters and other Republican clerks who have questioned the trustworthiness of Colorado’s election equipment.

I was the first Secretary in the nation to have to prohibit fake audits after county clerks were threatened, some with their lives,” said Griswold. “I was the first secretary of state to address an insider threat when Tina Peters compromised her voting equipment.” 

In making her pitch for reelection, Griswold also points to what she describes as positive changes she’s made to the state’s election system — requiring counties to increase the number of ballot drop boxes, expanding automatic voter registration and navigating elections during a pandemic. 

She’s also repeatedly cast this election as a moment of crisis for the system, saying in numerous national cable news appearances that it will test the country’s faith in democracy, and that people need to mobilize to fight against the “Big Lie.”  

“We’re seeing the worst attack on democracy right now, and it’s imperative that we do everything we can to stop it,” said Griswold during an appearance on MSNBC in February. 

Her national profile pushing back against Trump and his allies has helped put Griswold on the radar of voters closer to home.

Bente Birkeland/CPR News
Democratic incumbent Secretary of State Jena Griswold, campaigning for re-election.

As she walked behind a campaign banner in a Labor Day parade in Louisville, numerous people in the crowd came up to Griswold to share their appreciation. 

“Thank you for sticking your neck out,” said Kate Fenner, a Democratic party volunteer. “I'm sorry that your job has become so in the bullseye.” 

Fenner said she cares about a lot of different issues this election, but underneath, the throughline through all of those issues is voting and democracy. So that has me the most anxious, because without voting, we have nothing.”

However, Griswold’s vocal opposition to the GOP on election security has also been polarizing. Republicans complain that Griswold’s rhetoric is too partisan for someone who oversees a system that all Coloradans, regardless of political affiliation, need to be able to trust.

Republican challenger Pam Anderson is well-respected in the election world by fellow county clerks

Republican nominee Pam Anderson argues that Griswold has used the debate over election integrity for her own political gain. 

“My opponent spent taxpayer money talking about mis- and disinformation, and then turned around and said the United States would lose their right to vote if you elect Republicans, that's false,” said Anderson.

The ads on misinformation Anderson was referring to aired on television this summer, and Republicans said they were meant to boost Griswold’s image more than build public trust. 

“I think that what we need is leadership that won't use hyper-partisan rhetoric to elevate their profile,” continued Anderson. 

Anderson is a former Jefferson County Clerk who also led the Colorado County Clerks Association for a time. She is well respected in Colorado’s election world and former clerks from both political parties have endorsed her.

Bente Birkeland/CPR News
Republican candidate for Secretary of State Pam Anderson.

“She's worked with counties across the state and she's worked with elections across the nation,” said Hillary Hall, who served as a Democratic clerk in Boulder county. She said she respects Anderson’s professionalism and non-partisanship.

“This is her gig. She wants to be an expert in elections and she is, and we need that in the office, especially now when people aren't believing what they're hearing and we need someone who can stand up and defend it.”

Griswold has had a contentious relationship at times with some clerks who were unhappy with what they felt was a lack of guidance early in the pandemic and a 2019 law she championed requiring more drop boxes and in-person voting locations.

But she also has allies who appreciate that she’s outspoken. Earlier this year Griswold was a major backer of a bill aimed at preventing insider election security threats and another that bans the open carry of firearms within 100 feet of a polling location. Both are now law.

“My actions aren't partisan, it's protecting the right to vote,” said Griswold. “That's what my duty is as secretary of state.” 

Griswold also worked to help pass legislation to make it easier for statewide officials to get additional security. She said her job has brought a slew of threats; people on social media frequently call for Griswold’s death, violent rhetoric that has also spilled into the real world.

For her part, Griswold said Anderson is not doing enough to distance herself from GOP candidates who have questioned the 2020 election, such as Danny Moore, Heidi Ganahl’s pick for lieutenant governor.  

“She's campaigning openly with folks right now who are working to push out lies about our election infrastructure,” said Griswold. “I will never do that.” 

Despite that, similar visions for the election system

When it comes to how Colorado operates its elections, Anderson and Griswold agree on the major items: they both support universal mail ballots, early voting, and automatic voter registration.

Griswold said if she is re-elected access to voting will continue to be a top priority. 

“Coloradans can expect the continued championing of increased access, continuing to protect our election infrastructure and taking action when necessary in blue counties and red counties,” she said. 

For her part, Anderson said that, should she win, she would pay attention to the management side of the job, reducing staff turnover at the Secretary of State’s office and making sure its response times to business and nonprofits are timely. 

Elections are also a top priority for her. 

“That's my life work, improving election access, the integrity of it and the confidence that we can exercise our constitutional rights in a free and fair way. And that's why I'm running.”

Given that both candidates are firm in their support for the state’s election model, some voters may have to work a little harder to decide which one to ultimately pick. Twenty-nine-year-old unaffiliated voter Alex Lakocy lives in Lakewood and is adamant that he won’t back any candidate who says the 2020 election was stolen. He voted for Anderson in the GOP primary to ensure Tina Peters wouldn't be the nominee.

“There's a problem right now with a particular wing of the Republican party claiming that the election was stolen without providing any evidence to back it up,” he said. “I have a real problem with anybody from any political party making that claim.”

But Lakocy hasn’t selected a candidate yet for secretary of state.  

“I couldn't tell you a single difference on the issues between Jena and Pam, at this point. But I will certainly do my research.”

And after he does that research, Lakocy says he’ll make his decision based on issues, not party affiliation.  

Ballots for the midterm elections will be mailed out to voters Oct. 17.