The job of overseeing Colorado’s elections used to be a relatively obscure position compared to other more high-profile statewide offices, but not anymore.
The 2020 presidential election put the role of Secretary of State front and center in the national debate over election security and false claims of unprecedented fraud.
In her four years in office, Democrat Jena Griswold has embraced the increasingly high-profile nature of the position, and she’s now seeking to serve for another four years.
Griswold grew up in Estes Park. She’d never run for office before defeating incumbent Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican, in 2018, and has said she hadn't seen a lot of people from a rural working class background like hers in positions of power.
“My mom worked two jobs, growing up we were sometimes on food stamps, I started working the summer after seventh grade to help out,” she said. “ And that really is what shapes the work that I do, because I believe that everyday people should be able to choose their elected officials.”
When Griswold took office, she was taking over an election system that other states around the country have tried to model. Colorado has one of the highest voter participation rates in the nation and ranks as one of the easiest and most secure states in which to vote. Griswold is a vocal defender and advocate for Colorado’s all-mail ballot election model, a role that has become more prominent as she’s had to combat disinformation and insider election security threats over the past two years.
Griswold said, if reelected, her top priority will continue to be increasing access to the ballot. She points back to election law changes she championed at the legislature in recent years, including a 2019 law that increased the number of in person vote centers and required drop boxes at public universities and tribal lands and the expansion of the state’s existing automatic voter registration policies.
“So as Secretary of State, I've really tried to deliver on my pledge (and) increased voting access for every eligible Democrat, Republican and unaffiliated voter and will continue to do that in a second term,” said Griswold.
Griswold’s policies have at times put her at odds with some of the county clerks who administer elections locally. The 2019 law was pushed by progressive groups, but some clerks felt it was crafted to address problems that occur in other states, not Colorado. They complained it required them to spend money on increasing in person voting opportunities when 99 percent of Colorado voters return mail ballots.
Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Griswold became a go-to Democratic voice for the cable news networks, rejecting Donald Trump’s disparagement of the election system. Those appearances led some clerks to complain she was politicizing the office and making it harder for Republican voters to trust the fairness of the system.
“I will always push back against what I see as undemocratic, very troubling tactics, and that would be true, whether it was a Democratic president or a Republican president,” Griswold told CPR at the time.
She also became well known nationally during the COVID pandemic when Colorado, with mail ballots and lots of polling locations was poised to be one of the most prepared states to conduct the 2020 presidential election amidst social distancing and other restrictions in place at the local level.
“Even with those challenges, I've overseen six successful statewide elections, many with record turnout in the middle of the pandemic and under these attacks on the right to vote.”
The Mesa County security breach
For the past year, Griswold has been at the center of an unprecedented investigation into insider security threats, starting with her response to Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters — the Republican who faces criminal charges for allegedly violating the security of her office’s election equipment in a search for purported fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
News of the breach first surfaced when Griswold announced her office was decertifying Mesa County’s voting machines while investigators looked into how photos of their secure passwords had ended up on an election conspiracy site.
“I had to address the first situation in the country where an elected official elected to oversee elections actually compromised her own elections. I acted quickly,” said Griswold.
In the fourteen months since the breach came to light, Griswold’s office has continued to take action, going to court to prevent Peters from overseeing elections in her county and opening an investigation into a second Republican county clerk who also made copies of his machines’ hard drives.
The Peters investigation has only increased Griswold’s national profile and some critics have accused her of using the situation to boost her reelection campaign.
But Griswold defends her vocal pushback as motivated not by politics but by “the worst attack on democracy right now,” which she says makes it imperative she do everything she can to stop it.
“The stakes across the country are incredibly high in 2022: MAGA Republicans and election deniers are running for office nationwide; anti-choice extremists are working to rob women of our bodily autonomy; voting rights are under serious threat,” said a fundraising email from Griswold Sept. 30.
“The future of democracy is in Americans’ hands.”
In the past legislative session, Griswold turned her attention to security for election workers and voters. She backed a bill outlawing openly carrying a gun within 100 feet of a polling place or drop box. She also spearheaded legislation to make much of what clerk Peters is accused of doing illegal and was the driving force behind a bill that allows statewide elected officials and lawmakers to get additional security in the face of increased threats.
Griswold and her opponent Republican Pam Anderson don’t have the kind of major policy differences that many other states are seeing in their secretary of state races. Both are strong supporters of Colorado’s existing election system and Anderson does not believe the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen.
The Secretary of State’s Office also deals with more than elections. Other divisions include business registrations, licensing of charities and nonprofits and notaries public. At the start of this year, Griswold worked with Democrats in the legislature to drop the fee for new business filings to $1 for a year, down from $50 to file as an LLC and $20 to register a trade name. Lawmakers backfilled the lost fees with $8.4 million in general tax revenues.
Griswold has been the fundraising juggernaut in this race. So far her campaign has raised close to $4 million whereas Anderson has only raised about $200 thousand.
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