Erroneous mailers and political tone sticking points in secretary of state debate

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Secretary of State incumbent Jena Griswold (right) and her opponent, Pam Anderson, debate at the University of Denver. Oct. 11, 2022.

The two women vying to oversee Colorado’s elections met for a spirited debate at the University of Denver’s Center on American Politics Tuesday evening. 

Their exchanges highlighted philosophical differences over how political the job of secretary of state should be and how best to navigate the unprecedented attack on the country’s democratic processes, even while they agreed on fundamental aspects of the job.

Democratic incumbent Jena Griswold is running for a second term against Republican Pam Anderson, a former Jefferson County clerk and the former head of the Colorado County Clerks Association.

The Colorado Sun and CBS4 hosted the debate, the first televised meeting between the two candidates.

In many ways, there’s little difference in how Griswold and Anderson view Colorado’s elections. They both support the all-mail ballot system and more recent innovations, like automatic voter registration and risk limiting audits. Both believe the 2020 presidential election was fair and accurate and say election deniers must be debunked.

But the debate also revealed key differences between the candidates. 

How political should this office be?

When asked whether the state’s top election official should weigh in on political issues outside of the narrow tasks of the office, Anderson is inclined to say no. She said this is a professional office and she used her views on abortion — she said she supports abortion rights — as an example of something she wouldn’t talk about because it’s are not central to the secretary of state’s role.

“Nor should we be using polarizing issues that are very likely to come before you as an initiative, because it questions whether or not you can be a fair referee, and even if the perception is that you are putting your thumb on the scale,” said Anderson.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Secretary of State challenger Pam Anderson debates incumbent Jena Griswold at the University of Denver. Oct. 11, 2022.

But Griswold, who barred her staff from traveling to Alabama for work after that state passed a restrictive abortion law, disagrees with that approach.

“When the fundamental freedom to choose who to marry, when to have a kid, how to start a family is under attack, I will stand up for people's rights standing up for fundamental freedom,” she said. “Freedom is not partisan. It is the duty of every elected official.”

Griswold also defended herself from criticism that her national media appearances have been too partisan in tone, and that she’s used fears of election deniers like Mesa county clerk Tina Peters to fundraise.

“I communicate with people in all different ways,” said Griswold. “We often issue press releases, we tell people what's happening and I'm so happy to always be able to talk about the Colorado election model because it works. I'm happy to be able to assure Coloradans that their vote is secure, that their access will remain intact and encourage the country to look at our Colorado election model.”

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Secretary of State incumbent Jena Griswold debates her opponent, Pam Anderson, at the University of Denver. Oct. 11, 2022.

In another area of difference, Anderson said she’s open to considering making the secretary of state a nonpartisan office. Griswold didn’t directly answer that question.

“Under the Colorado Constitution, the Colorado secretary of state is an elected office and accountable to the people. And I think it's important that the secretary of state be accountable to the people,” Griswold said. 

Anderson wouldn’t directly answer whether she would vote for Donald Trump in 2024 should he be the Republican nominee. 

“I won't tell you if I will support any candidate, and I've never endorsed a single candidate on a ballot that I've done. But I will tell you, I will stand up to anyone who uses mis- and disinformation, conspiracies or lies against our democratic process. Who would overturn (or) attempt to overturn the vote of the American people, whether it's Donald Trump or anybody else.”

Griswold on election mailer mistake: ‘it was a data glitch’

Colorado’s Secretary of State’s Office made national news in recent days when it was revealed the state erroneously sent 30,000 noncitizens postcards urging them to register to vote. (Safeguards in the registration system prevent people who are not U.S. citizens from becoming voters.)

At the debate, Anderson said she understands that mistakes happen but said the situation points to a management problem and a “lack of leadership” from Griswold.

“I think it's because you've had three deputy secretaries, four chiefs of staff, at least three comms directors, and at least three legislative liaisons,” said Anderson. “And that turnover results in mistakes, repeated mistakes. What I am concerned about is your lack of accountability.”

Griswold said she does hold herself accountable. She noted that her office revealed the error to CPR and has since sent out additional postcards to remind the noncitizens who mistakenly received the original notices of the state’s voter eligibility requirements.

“It was a data glitch,” said Griwsold. “I believe this has happened in prior administrations, but now we're in such a hot political atmosphere that data glitches can fuel major disinformation.”

“If we were in a different political atmosphere, this probably wouldn't get the coverage that it does. But to be very clear, the atmosphere we're in right now is because the former president of the United States tried to steal the presidency and has continued to push out major disinformation. So I'll always be transparent, we'll always make sure that if we see a problem that we're going to fix it.”