Jena Griswold on reelection and those voter registration mailers

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24min 39sec
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Secretary of State incumbent Jena Griswold debates her opponent, Pam Anderson, at the University of Denver. Oct. 11, 2022.

She doesn’t hold an office in Washington, D.C., or sit in the Governor’s chair, but it can be argued that one of Colorado’s best-known political figures is Jena Griswold. As Secretary of State, the Democrat has been a persistent voice on issues ranging from ballot access to a woman’s right to choose. Her stances on those and other lightning rod topics have drawn criticism from those arguing that the office should be non-partisan and apolitical.

Griswold disagrees.

“The Colorado constitution has the Secretary of State as an elected position … I think a Secretary of State should be accountable to Colorado voters,” she said during an interview with Colorado Matters senior host Ryan Warner. “There are some who would say standing up vocally to protect the right to vote is partisan. That is not partisan. That's my job. My job as Secretary of State is to protect the right to vote and our fundamental freedoms. And every elected official when they're seeing attacks to fundamental freedoms should be doing the same. That's not partisan. That's American.”

Right now, Griswold is focused on her reelection campaign, facing off against Republican Pam Anderson. In the conversation with Warner, Griswold discussed why she’s seeking another four years in office, even amid death threats (which have spiked in recent days after former president Donald Trump referenced her in a Truth Social message). Griswold also responded to the impetus for Trump’s message: the accidental mailing of 30,000 voter registration notices to residents who are not United States citizens.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ryan Warner: Being Secretary of State is now plainly a dangerous job. You have received threats, so by the way have many local clerks. Why do you want the job for another four years?

Jena Griswold: I'm running for re-election because I think there's more work to do to expand access to voting in the state of Colorado, and to protect the right to vote in our elections. Over the last four years, I'm so proud of what we accomplished. We are number two in the nation for turnout as of the 2020 General Election. Until we're number one, there's just more work to do.

Warner: Let's talk about access in particular. What do you think is an obstacle at this point to access in a state that already affords a lot of it?

Griswold: In my first year, we started to increase drop boxes. We increased in-person voting locations. We passed parolee re-enfranchisement, guaranteed access in every public university and on tribal lands, but like I mentioned, there's more work to do. Some of the things we're exploring is expanding automatic voter registration even further. That's a program that has registered over 350,000 eligible Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliateds and makes our elections more secure.

Warner: Folks may recognize that best in driver's licenses, correct?

Griswold: Yes. It happens when folks visit a driver license office, and it's been a great program. It was launched in the middle of the pandemic, and allowed registration rates to really keep up and stay high, even during shutdown.

Warner: Where else would you want automatic voter registration?

Griswold: I think government should meet people where they are. People shouldn't have to go to multiple government agencies to register to vote, or anything like that. So we're exploring expanding it to where Medicaid is offered, and another thing that I think is really interesting is continuing to listen to and partner with the tribes in Colorado.

Warner: The Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute are the two recognized tribes here.

Griswold: That's right. So Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute, the right to vote for Native Americans living on tribal lands was not recognized until 1970. And so although Colorado, we are number two in turnout in the country, we're always number one or two for the percentage of eligible people registered to vote. Those numbers have been historically much lower on tribal lands. Through our partnership over the last four years, we have seen an approximate 20 percent increase in Native voting for folks living on tribal lands. But there's more work to do there, too.

Warner: While candidates for Secretary of State make known their political affiliation, there are those who'd argue that the office should be decidedly apolitical. Do you agree with that assessment? Are you trying perhaps to redefine or expand that role?

Griswold: The Colorado constitution has the Secretary of State as an elected position and I fully agree with that. I think a Secretary of State should be accountable to Colorado voters, and to be clear, there are two Big Lie Secretaries of State in the nation right now. They're both appointed, in Texas and Florida.

Warner: You called them Big Lie Secretaries of State?

Griswold: Election denier Secretaries of State. And we are seeing candidates across this nation who are election deniers run to oversee America's elections. So I think it's important that voters get to choose that folks are accountable. But I do want to push back a little bit on the premise. There are some who would say standing up vocally to protect the right to vote is partisan. That is not partisan. That's my job. My job as Secretary of State is to protect the right to vote and our fundamental freedoms. And every elected official when they're seeing attacks to fundamental freedoms should be doing the same. That's not partisan. That's American.

Warner: But you know, there are other issues you stand up for. In July, you sent a fundraising email asking people to chip in 25 bucks and the subject was abortion. I'll just quote the email, "I want to make it known where I stand when it comes to protecting the citizens of Colorado in a post-Roe America." Why should a Secretary of State who needs to earn the trust, you know, let's say of someone who is anti-abortion, why should a Secretary of State be visible on that issue?

Griswold: Well, I would say, the right to abortion access, the right to reproductive health care is a fundamental right, just like marriage equality, just like a lot of the rights that Americans should have access to. And as one of the very few statewide elected women, one of the few women ever to serve in an office like this, I will always stand up for women, families, and little kids.

I think it's egregious what's happening to women in this country and I think more folks should make it clear where they are. At times, my opponent wants to attack me on being pro-choice. She's making her positions known too. And I've already overseen a statewide ballot question that had an abortion ban on it and that election was free and fair, just like any other election. People have opinions. It's more important to be transparent with opinions, and again, I will always stand up for fundamental freedoms. I will always stand up to protect the right to vote of every Democrat, Republican, and unaffiliated. And I'll always stand up for little kids, for families, and women.

Warner: So you think the transparency of your beliefs is important in this role, and in this race. Do step into the shoes of an anti-abortion voter in Colorado. You mentioned overseeing an election in which there was an abortion question on the ballot. But say more to someone who thinks, "Gosh, that kind of erodes my trust in this office that has to run non-partisan elections."

Griswold: The office does run non-partisan elections and I think you can just look at my record, whether it's intervening in Mesa County and Elbert County for security breaches caused by Republican county clerks, to intervening in both Alamosa and Pueblo County for issues caused by Democratic county clerks. My record speaks for itself.

Warner: Your office recently mailed voter registration notices to about 30,000 Coloradans who are not US citizens. I'll say, those postcards did make it clear that you must be a citizen to vote. Your office first alerted the press to this error. And I want to get a few things on the record at a very fraught time. For instance, former President Trump has shared this story. Jena Griswold, was this in any way intentional?

Griswold: No.

Warner: It has been widely reported that a similar incident happened in 2020, also just prior to an election. Critics say that's a highly improbable coincidence, or at least that last week's incident means you didn't learn from that mistake in 2020. What would you say to that?

Griswold: Well, I would say in 2020, over 700,000 mailings went out and a handful went to incorrect recipients. The mailings always say the qualifications to register to vote in the state of Colorado. Someone has to be a US citizen, they have to be in the state 22 days before election day, and 18 by election day. And of course, they have to be alive and able to vote, things like that. And I would say, you know, this year, there was a data error in the process and the office is required to send out these mailings. I think the bigger thing is that we are living in a really fraught political atmosphere, largely because the former President of the United States tried to steal the presidency. And the attacks on the right to vote leading up to that have not stopped, they've intensified. I would also say that my opponent, Pam Anderson, mistakenly sent out a postcard to 22,000 people when she was county clerk. Data glitches can happen. It doesn't mean that the system isn't working. In fact, the system is working. No one with a non-citizens driver's license is going to be able to register to vote. We're sending out another mailer telling folks again, just like the first mailer said, "You have to be a US citizen to cast a ballot." No one from that mailing list has attempted to register to vote who is ineligible to do so.

Warner: That's something you're monitoring specifically?

Griswold: Every single day. Every single day. So our elections are safe and secure. Our communications are very clear. Our system is set up to block anybody with a non-citizen ID from registering.

Warner: And that’s true online. Is it true in person as well, if someone tried to register in person?

Griswold: So in person, you would have to either give a Social Security number or a driver's license. And if you tried to give a non-citizen's driver's license, of course you will be blocked. If you try to register without one of those, you will be marked as ID deficient, which means you will have to provide proof of ID later on. So our system has protocol after protocol after protocol after protocol. And I think it's important to focus on (the fact) that the system works, a data glitch happens. We were very transparent and responded to it immediately. The Colorado election model is one of the best in the country and I just think it's a shame to see things spin very quickly into misinformation.

Warner: That's a pattern you've seen in this role, I gather?

Griswold: Absolutely.

Warner: Does the word glitch remove your responsibility?

Griswold: No, I don't think so. I think it was basically a coding error that wasn't caught. We took responsibility right away and acted very transparently, alerting folks. We took extra steps to make sure that a second postcard which says the same as the first postcard that only US citizens can register to vote. So, no.

Warner: Isn't the difference between the first and the second postcard that the first one had your name on it, and the second one doesn't? That's been pointed out.

Griswold: I think what's important is that the postcards clearly say that they're official mail, and they clearly say that only US citizens can register to vote.

Warner: Why isn't your name on the second one? I'm just curious.

Griswold: You know, different designs. But I think what is important is the actual issue, these registration alerts are not ballots. No one was mistakenly sent a ballot. The postcards all say that you have to be a US citizen to register to vote. We have redundancy after redundancy after redundancy to make sure that only eligible people are registered. It's illegal to register or cast a ballot if one is ineligible to do so. And if we ever catch anything like that, it's referred to prosecution.

Our system is safe and secure and as Secretary of State, I've added layers of security. But also, have guided the office and Colorado elections and democracy through the worst attack on voting rights and the worst election disinformation atmosphere in recent times. And I think with great success. We are seeing Coloradans continue to overwhelmingly use vote by mail for all, even after years and years of lies coming even from the highest office in the land. And I'm just so glad that Coloradans, Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliateds make their voices heard in our elections.

Warner: Do you like voter ID laws as they are now in Colorado? Do you think they hit the right note?

Griswold: I support voter ID and I think our current law works really well.

Warner: You have said in national media appearances that Americans could lose the right to vote if Republican candidates win some elections this fall. And your critics label that election misinformation. I mean, especially given that your opponent in this race does not deny the results of the 2020 election, opposes the idea of trying to overthrow it, and has said that she has great faith in Colorado's system. Jena Griswold, are you in a strange position in Colorado of kind of running against national Republicans, but in a state where the Republican candidate does not espouse those Big Lies?

Griswold: No, I don't think it's a strange position to be able to talk about your opponent in a race, but also what's happening across the country. To be very clear, I've never called my opponent an election denier. She and I both agree that Joe Biden was duly elected, and that Colorado's elections are safe and secure. At the same time, there are candidates running across this nation for Secretary of State who are Big Lie candidates. They do not believe in free and fair elections, and are running to oversee them. The nation should be concerned about that, and is. Democracy is one of the top issues on voters' minds. And going into this election cycle, over 60 percent of American voters have an election denier on their ballot. We are at a turning point.

Warner: Since the story of these postcards has gone viral, and as I said, shared by the former president, are you seeing an uptick in threats against you?

Griswold: Yes. We've seen a massive uptick of threats, but again, I won't be intimidated from doing my job. And my job is to protect the right to vote of every eligible Democrat, Republican, and unaffiliated, and protect our election infrastructure. It also by the way, there's more things the Secretary of State does. I oversee the business registry, I've been working on saving Coloradans money and making it as easy as possible to open a business. And just this year, we've slashed the cost of opening a new business down to $1 and set up a process to help small businesses who are the victims of identity theft.

Warner: There are also lotteries and raffles.

Griswold: Bingo, campaign finance. Lobbying oversight.

Warner: When threats come in, just back to that point briefly, how do they come in? What do they sound like? Without giving them too much credence.

Griswold: The threats come in all different types of ways. Emails and calls to my office, calls to my personal phone, DMs directed to my personal accounts, posts on social media, letters, any way that you can communicate with a person, we are seeing threats.

Warner: Do you ever engage with them, or is an immediate pass-off to law enforcement?

Griswold: Oh, it's an immediate pass-off. And just on Friday, a person was sentenced to 18 months in prison for threatening my life. And to be very clear, this is not about me as an individual. It does feel really concerning when you're in the middle of a national QAnon conspiracy and you see where these threats can go. The disinformation led to the insurrection, it led to loss of life of police officers protecting the Capitol. So you have to take them really seriously. But taking a step back, threats to Secretaries of State predominantly, to tell you the truth, have been to younger women, but threats to Secretaries of State and election workers is a tool to try to intimidate us to stop doing the work of protecting democracy. I won't stop. I'm going to continue to protect the right to vote and we're just going to be really smart at it, and that's why I'm so grateful that the State Patrol really investigates the threats and takes them seriously.

Warner: Your opponent says that your office received over $6 million in federal money during COVID, but rather than using the full amount for county clerks and Colorado citizens, more than a million was used to make a commercial with former Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican. Williams is running for mayor of Colorado Springs. That's not this cycle but you are running this cycle for Secretary of State. The message of the ad aside, it was about having confidence in Colorado's system. Is it icky for two active candidates to use federal relief dollars for an ad that features them?

Griswold: We are in one of the worst attacks on the right to vote in recent times and the misinformation, the election denialism has real effects in Colorado. It has led to two security breaches, one in Mesa County and one in Elbert County, where the county clerks breached their own security protocols trying to prove the Big Lie. It has led to the Chaffee County Clerk working behind bulletproof glass. It has led to me requiring security. It has led to election deniers chattering right now in the state of Colorado about firebombing drop boxes. The Big Lie has real effects on how election administration works. And experts say the best way to combat election disinformation is to alert people that it's happening. The Secretary of State is one of the most trusted sources on election information. And I think a bipartisan PSA reassuring Coloradans that our elections are safe and secure, alerting them to disinformation, and allowing them to know how to get trusted information is exactly what we should be doing.

I'm glad that my predecessor, literally the person I ran against in 2018, thought that this was so important he was willing to join me. And remember, we only put this on TV after it was clear that we were very likely going into the first statewide recount in 20 years based on conspiracies. In terms of what my opponent is saying, this is not an either/or choice for the federal funding. We have actually, for those federal funds, appropriated or, used, plan to use, about 90 percent on projects that county clerks want. We have funded almost every request from a county clerk that is eligible to be funded from this money. We can do both. And remember, these federal funds are intended to secure our elections. One of the things we need to do to secure our elections is push back on massive disinformation that is used to cause election threats, and I think in a bipartisan way, that's exactly what we should be doing.

Warner: Why not put someone else as the face on it? Like, you could've put your elections director or something? You know, the full faith and credit of your office without the candidate on screen.

Griswold: The Secretary of State is one of the most trusted sources. That's what experts that study this across the nation-

Warner: But the act itself has undermined trust. I mean, that's the interesting Catch-22 here.

Griswold: Again, I’m not so sure that that is accurate. My opponent has decided to run a really negative campaign. And instead of embracing that two people who literally ran against each other are willing to reassure Coloradans that our elections are safe and secure and to be aware of election disinformation, has decided to use this as a political attack. That does not mean that the bipartisan PSA was not effective. And in fact, the actual feedback we get from Coloradans is overwhelmingly in support and a thank you for running these PSAs. And again, I would say the fact that we're able to appear together and are some of the best sources, trusted sources on election information for the state of Colorado, I think is commendable, and is something that we should be doing across the nation. More Republicans should be willing to stand up and tell folks elections are safe and secure, just like Secretary Williams did.

Warner: We spoke with Chuck Broerman, so he's the clerk in El Paso County. He is one of the Republicans that you're talking about there, who has stood up to the notion of election fraud. He was recently honored with the Defender of Democracy Award by the State County Clerks Association. We asked him if he would pose a question to the Secretary of State candidates. I'll point out he's a Republican, but he's not endorsing in the race.

Chuck Broerman: What would you implement to assist county clerks in their role? They have a very difficult one. They wear many hats, between recording deeds of trust, performing marriage ceremonies, motor vehicle transactions, and doing the agenda for the county commissioners. What things will you implement to better support clerk and recorders, and would you be willing to assist clerk and recorders in getting a fair amount of reimbursement for the costs of elections? Elections are very expensive, but we only get a measly 80 cents per voter, and it costs us about five or six times that to run an election per voter.

Warner: What's your response to Chuck?

Griswold: And I think clerk Broerman has really been at some of the center of this election denialism. When we went into that first statewide recount after the primary when Tina Peters, a candidate for Secretary of State, refused to accept the results, a lot of the focus of the angst was in El Paso County. My staff was there, assisting the clerk, and making sure that they had the support that they needed, so I think he did a really good job through that whole ordeal. I would say a couple things: first and foremost, we have added more support to the office for county clerks. This is a different type of job now. I don't think any Secretary of State has had to oversee elections during a global pandemic and with one of the worst attacks on voting rights in recent times. And it of course, is more trying for the people in the Secretary of State's Office and all the county election officers. So we want to be there to have support and make sure-

Warner: You're saying this is a more dangerous job now?

Griswold: You face threats, you face a constant onslaught of lawsuits, it’s just a lot. And the county clerks overwhelmingly do a great job.

Warner: We heard earlier this week in our series on election transparency that clerks are being bombarded with paperwork requests. Almost-

Griswold: Our office too.

Warner: Like a denial of service attack, but with kind of public records requests.

Griswold: Yes. So I think you can think about the attempts to destabilize American elections as number one: try to suppress the right to vote. That's what we're seeing across the nation. We've stopped all attempts here. Number two: destabilize the elections themselves, insider threats, threaten clerks, try to get election deniers into these posts. Number three: erode confidence of Americans in that Americans' elections are free and fair. Number four is gum up government. So we have been seeing a lot like record request after record request. I believe my office got from one person, 60 requests in one day. Lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit. We are winning every single one of those lawsuits and just out of the recount, we had to defend and won, I believe, six lawsuits and appeals. Right? So yes, there's just more work at this point, but to answer your question, we're adding more support to the counties. I'm also working with the county clerks and the Clerks Association to tighten our laws. Just this year, we partnered together to make it a crime to dox or retaliate against an election worker.

Warner: Doxxing is the idea of potentially going online, for instance, and publishing private information or sensitive information, an address or a phone number or something?

Griswold: Yeah, in an attempt to retaliate against them or try to intimidate them. So that's now a crime in the state of Colorado. We just passed, I was happy to lead and the Clerks Association supported, the first law in the nation on insider threats. It is now a felony to compromise voting equipment. It's a felony to allow unauthorized access. It's a felony to post sensitive passwords to election equipment online. We also protected whistleblowers and in that legislation were able to get a million dollars of funding for the counties to upgrade their physical security.

Warner: Thank you for being with us.

Griswold: Thank you for having me.