One of the Least Understood Statewide Offices Up for Grabs in November Controls Elections

Jena Griswold, the only female statewide candidate in the 2018 general election, is running to unseat Republican incumbent Wayne Williams for Colorado secretary of state.
Courtesy of Jena Griswold
Jena Griswold, the only female statewide candidate in the 2018 general election, is running to unseat Republican incumbent Wayne Williams for Colorado secretary of state.
The Colorado secretary of state is the least sexy and, possibly, the least understood statewide position. The secretary is partly a glorified office manager who oversees the registration of businesses, charities, lobbyists and notaries for the state, but the job's most important responsibility is being in charge of Colorado's elections.

Jena Griswold is running to unseat Republican incumbent Wayne Williams, whom she has painted with Trumpian strokes for handing over Colorado voter data to a controversial White House commission on election fraud last summer amid several lawsuits against the commission. Hysteria over Williams's decision led more than 3,000 Coloradans to cancel their voter registration so their information wouldn't be shared with the commission. Williams defended the decision by saying only publicly available voter information that anyone could have obtained was turned over to the White House. Griswold, however, says she would have fought Trump.

"He came out and said it's Colorado law, it's Colorado law, it's Colorado law. And I said, look, it is Colorado law for third parties to have access to some voter information. It is not Colorado law to comply with an unlawful request," Griswold says, referencing the fact that the White House requested dates of birth, partial Social Security numbers and other confidential information. Colorado did not release any confidential voter information.

While Williams is a Republican, some in his party might balk at his achievements. He has improved voter access by automatically opting state driver's license applicants into the voter registration system, and he advocated for a bill that would require state and local governments to digitally provide public records, which is a substantial improvement in government transparency. And even with pushback from some members of his own party, Williams implemented a first-in-the-nation risk-limiting election audit process last year, which involves manually recounting paper ballots.

"If you're running to run a political agenda...I don't think that's the job [of secretary of state]," Williams says. "Run for the legislature if that's the goal. I think the job is to make sure that elections are run fairly, that people are able to file for business or register to vote — and that's exactly what I've done as secretary of state."

Griswold grew up in a working-class family in Estes Park, where she remembers frequenting the local food bank when her family struggled to make ends meet. Still, she has traveled the world, studying Latin American dance and culture, a passion that developed after a year abroad in Argentina as a high school foreign exchange student. After college, she spent a year as a traveling fellow with the Thomas J. Watson Foundation studying salsa dance in Brazil, Japan, Germany, Panama, Puerto Rico and Spain. She even ran a backpacking hostel in Colombia for a few months before enrolling in law school at the University of Pennsylvania.

Griswold's life took a political turn after law school. She worked for Representative Diana DeGette and President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign in Colorado, where she trained attorneys and poll-watchers. (Given that history, it's no surprise that former vice president Joe Biden threw his support behind Griswold last month.)

She went back to D.C. as a foreign-corruption attorney with a focus on Latin America but returned to politics in 2013 to serve as Governor John Hickenlooper's D.C. liaison.

Soon after Trump took office, Griswold says, she decided to stand up against potential federal elections overreach. Earlier this year, a bill was put forward in Congress that would have allowed Trump to dispatch the Secret Service to polling locations across the country. Nineteen bipartisan secretaries of state signed a letter sent to Congress opposing the bill; Williams was not among them.

Griswold has far less name recognition than her Republican incumbent, and the first-time candidate also comes up short in political experience. On top of that, Coloradans haven't elected a Democratic secretary of state in more than fifty years, meaning she will face incredible odds in November, though she has out-raised Williams more than two to one so far, according to campaign-finance disclosures.

Williams, on the other hand, has a long history in Colorado politics. He grew up in Virginia, went to Brigham Young University and then earned his law degree from the University of Virginia. In 1994, just two years after Williams moved to Colorado Springs as a young employment lawyer, then-mayor Bob Isaac appointed him to the city's housing-authority board, where he spent nine years and became chairman. In 2003, he won his first elected office as El Paso County commissioner, which he held for eight years. He moved on to become county clerk and recorder, and then in 2014, Williams succeeded Scott Gessler as secretary of state. Under Williams's leadership, Colorado has been lauded by cybersecurity experts as the safest state in the country to cast a ballot. (Intelligence officials say Russia targeted voting systems in 21 states, including Colorado, but breaches were only reported in Illinois and Arizona.) Big-name Republicans supporting Williams include former governor Bill Owens, who is the chairman of his re-election campaign.

With so much attention on election integrity and voter rights, what power does the secretary of state wield?

Gessler illustrated the office's power to control voter access when he labeled 900,000 voters as "inactive" in 2011 for not voting in the prior year's general election and instructed county clerks not to mail them ballots. And a significant but lesser-discussed issue that the secretary of state controls is the flow of campaign-finance information. Right now, all publicly available campaign-finance records, complaints and disciplinary decisions are available on the state's disclosure search engine known as TRACER. Griswold says she'd like to see the site be more user-friendly and transparent, even going as far as to say she'd prefer TRACER to be more like the comprehensive election finance site Open Secrets, which is run by the Center for Responsive Politics. But like any member of the executive branch, the secretary of state is bound by the law. The secretary can advocate for campaign or election reform, but he or she ultimately works within the confines of legislation.

"I believe this should be a nonpartisan-acting position. You run on a party, but your goal in that office should be to protect every eligible voter's voting rights," Griswold says. "I think our current secretary of state has shown time and time again that he will make political decisions instead of standing up for Colorado voters."