Election

The Final Countdown: Q&A With Incumbent Secretary of State Jena Griswold

Secretary of State Jena Griswold wants to keep her seat.
Secretary of State Jena Griswold wants to keep her seat. jenaforcolorado.com
Colorado ballots are arriving in the mail this week, the latest step in a state election system that’s considered "the gold standard” for the country...at a time when plenty of other systems have been tarnished with allegations of vote rigging by election deniers.

Incumbent Secretary of State Jena Griswold is running for reelection on the Democratic ticket; she faces Republican challenger Pam Anderson, the former Jefferson County clerk and recorder who’s served as executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association. Both candidates are quick to counter the rampant disinformation about the 2020 election; in fact, their stances on that issue are almost indistinguishable.

The greatest difference between the two lies in how they view the role of secretary of state. Griswold embraces a more activist position, while Anderson believes that doing so risks making the office seem partisan or biased. We sat down with both candidates to talk about their formative experiences, sense of mission, philosophies about the role, and how best to respond to accusations of election denial. Here's our Q&A with Secretary of State Jena Griswold:

Westword:
Can we start with growing up? Estes Park, right?

Jena Griswold:
I lived a little bit in Estes Park and a little bit in Drake. Basically, if you’re leaving Loveland, in that canyon leading up to Estes Park, there’s a small town called Drake. And we lived in the Big Thompson Canyon, which got blown out in 2013. The flood happened, and we were out of touch with my mom for several days — you know, you just kind of think the worst. But anyhow, I grew up in that canyon. And my mom’s a nurse. She got an associate’s degree; I think I was five or six.

We grew up pretty blue-collar. My dad — later in life, he ended up going to college and got his life in a more stable spot, but he never held a steady job, so my mom worked two jobs most of the time when I was growing up.

Anyhow, I started working the summer after seventh grade to help out. First job was scrubbing dishes at the Post Office Cafe, which was literally right next to the post office. I worked a lot of small tourist-town jobs. I really enjoyed waitressing. That was my second-favorite job after this one. It’s fast-paced, you meet so many people. That time really shapes my worldview. I saw that our situation wasn’t all that unique, that a lot of families were struggling like mine. I also was working with a lot of undocumented Coloradans. Estes Park had a lot of new families moving in, and working really young and seeing like, okay, there’s all these inequalities — that’s why I went to college, that’s why I went to law school.

You’re the first in your family to go to a four-year college. What was that like?

I always loved to read. My dad always pushed me to read a lot. But I wanted to see the world, go outside Estes Park, see what else there was. And I always really liked to learn. The first big shock was going to college. I went to Whitman undergrad, sight unseen. They recruited me, sent me a box of sweet onions, the Walla Walla onions that they eat like apples. So I had this beat-up Volvo — like, the odometer died, I think, at 260,000 miles. I was so broke. I drove sixteen hours to school once. My mom drove with me. It was like, drive through Wyoming, the first time I saw someone pump gas for you. And we get to Walla Walla, which is a town of like 30,000 people. And I remember thinking — I’m seventeen years old — I’m finally in the big city.

Once I got to Whitman, it was a great education. But it was just a big, big shock, because suddenly you’re like in another class setting.

I think you majored in politics.

And Spanish literature.

How did you get interested in politics, and why did you decide to go to law school?

Honestly, it was never destined for me to go to college. Like, it’s not something my parents said: You’re going to go to college. They never said that when we were kids. It was starting working at a young age and thinking, you know what, not everybody has the same opportunity. People are working around the clock. The American dream is not at the fingertips of a lot of people, right? I went to school...honestly, I just wanted to do something good. And I thought, You go to school and you get the tools to do it.

And really, that’s why I went to law school, too. When I got to college, I never thought, I’m going to go to law school. It wasn’t until maybe my senior year, I’m like, okay, I’m going to take the LSAT.

I didn’t know any attorneys prior to law school, had never even been to the East Coast, and you get to Penn and you’re on this curve with all these brainiacs who’ve done a million prep courses — oh, my gosh.
But thinking about law — when I was still in high school, I was an exchange student to Argentina, and the people who were pushing for equality, for fair wages, were law students, they were lawyers. And so I thought, you go to law school to be able to do something good.

And trying to be introspective, like, well, why do you want to do something good? Another big formative thing for me when I was a kid was going to food banks. I remember going to the Larimer County Food Bank. And I remember, you know, being a little embarrassed. And I started actually volunteering at the food bank here to try to give back.

So it was like, working young, going to the food banks, and just seeing the role of community.

Did you study election law when you were in law school?

No, they didn’t have that course at Penn. I took a lot of constitutional law. I took policy classes. I also took a course outside of law school — advanced U.S. history for Ph.D. history majors. And then while I was in law school, I won the Penn Law International Human Rights fellowship and went down to Venezuela and worked with an NGO there.

You went to work for Barack Obama’s campaign and did voter protection, but how did you get from law school to there?

I didn’t go to law school to work in big law. And I had never been on the East Coast. I went sight unseen to Penn, and suddenly you’re in a law school, which at the time was very cued to big law. And I spoke Spanish and Portuguese. So when I was interviewing, it was when the legal market was kind of taking a tank, and so instead of coming back home, I ended up going to D.C. And I was supposed to join their Latin American practice at Paul Hastings, but before I got there, it moved, so I got put into their Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. That’s basically the law — it’s civil and criminal liability — that any corporation that’s trading on our stock exchanges can’t bribe foreign government officials, and their agents can’t bribe foreign government officials. So thinking about like, how does power flow? How does money flow? How does influence flow?

But as I was going into Paul Hastings, one of my mentors said, if you want to work at an NGO, if you want to do something good, have a plan to do that. And I didn’t have a plan. And then I was just really inspired by President Obama, and decided to join the voter protection team, and was sent home to Colorado to do that.

What does voter protection work entail? Were you looking at whether voting rights were being infringed during the election?

In the lead-up, and then the election. Part of it is making sure voters know their rights. Some of it is making sure...especially at that time, most issues with voting, it’s not purposeful. It’s just that there are so many cooks in the kitchen, right? So I remember a U.S. citizen in northern Colorado who didn’t have strong English was getting turned away and wasn’t understanding how to vote. So it was situations like that. You’re basically making sure from an outside perspective that the elections are being offered in compliance with state and federal law. And then trying to help solve any issues.

At the time, we had Scott Gessler as secretary of state, and he put together that list of mailings to allegedly non-U.S. citizens who largely were U.S. citizens, so you started to see tactics of how a secretary of state could try to, I would say, suppress turnout.

You had never run for office before, and then decided to run statewide for secretary of state in 2018. What prompted that decision?

In 2017, I announced. I do have a lot of respect for my predecessor [Wayne Williams], who I ran against. I think our relationship is how American politics should work. You have policy differences, you run against each other. When I won, before I was sworn in, he had me in the office, like, Hey, these are some of the things I want to tell you about. Do you have any questions? So when the Mesa County security breach happened — first in Colorado, first in the nation — I decertified all the equipment. The Republican county commissioners ended up joining with me. So they’re all Republican, you know, it’s Mesa County. They joined with me in asking a judge to remove the clerk. And then I asked Wayne to step in.

I was going to appoint a Republican no matter what, but to have a former Republican secretary of state who, arguably, at his own political cost, said yes — he’s joined me in doing various things to reassure Colorado voters that our elections are safe and secure.

Secretaries of state are the best messengers. They’re the most trusted messengers, sending a bipartisan message literally with the person that you ran against. And alerting Coloradans to the role of disinformation. I think it’s just really commendable.

I know. It’s very magnanimous, given that you beat him.

Well, and the flip of it is, you know, at the time, we didn’t know who would win the Republican primary, but he’s endorsed my opponent, right? And that’s fine. That’s how politics works.

But you’re supposed to, at a point, put all that stuff aside, because we should all be united in wanting free and fair elections, secure elections, pushing back on any attempts to suppress the vote or undermine confidence or undermine the election infrastructure itself.

And over the last few years, the clerks’ association — once Matt Crane became the executive director, he used to be clerk in Arapahoe County, Republican former clerk, he’s joined me — the majority-Republican clerks’ association supported action in Mesa County two times. Elbert County once, for clerks doing internal security breaches. They joined me when I ran the first law on insider threats, making it a felony to compromise voting equipment, and they joined me in making it a crime to retaliate against election workers. I unfortunately had to run a law expanding the State Patrol’s jurisdiction, and they supported me in that.

I do want to ask about some of that. But first, I think you’re the youngest elected secretary of state in the country, is that right?

And when we win again, I will continue to be.

And the first Democrat to win this position in many decades, and a woman. Do you think any of those attributes helped you to take a new approach to the role?

Oh, absolutely.

And how would you describe that?

Well, I was the first Democratic woman secretary of state Colorado’s ever had. And it’s just a handful of women who’ve ever won statewide executive office since we’ve been a territory. So my perspective is going to be different. I think my tenure has been different. I ran on this pledge of opening up access and led the largest democracy reform package in the country in my first year. So we greatly opened up access.

You know, if someone’s on food stamps, if they’re living up in a canyon leading to a small town, they’re just as important as anybody else. And the great equalizer in this country should be the right to vote. So we need to break down barriers, we need to increase access.

I think my background is also why I’m very proudly pro-choice. The secretary of state signs off on extraditions with the governor, so that’s one of the reasons I was glad to join Governor Polis and say we will not extradite for criminalization of abortion.
Jena Griswold with Attorney General Phil Weiser.
Westword
Let me ask you about that. Some Republican clerks seem to feel that the secretary of state shouldn’t take public stands on issues that are outside of the elections sphere. Can you talk about why you feel it’s important to take a stand on something like the subject of abortion?

Well, I think, a couple of things. My opponent would say that it’s partisan to do that. Number one, Coloradans have over and over and over again rejected abortion bans and prohibitions at the ballot box. Number two, when our fundamental freedoms are being stripped away, we need elected officials to stand up. When our constitutional rights are being abridged, we need elected officials to stand up. Whether it’s the right to vote and the stripping away of access to millions of people across this country, or the attempted stealing of the American presidency from the people, or the fact that millions of Americans have been stripped of their ability to access reproductive health care—and women will die, girls will die — these are fundamental freedoms. I reject the notion that it’s partisan to stand up for fundamental freedoms. I actually think it’s a duty to stand up.

Just hearing the stories of what’s happening, to hear that extremist legislators would want to force a ten-year-old girl to give birth when she’s been raped, is disgusting to me. It’s egregious, and it should be egregious to every single American.

You know, the stories we’re hearing of women driving up with ectopic pregnancies from Texas...one of the women who’s really involved with reproductive health care protection was telling me, I think it was maybe three weeks ago, that a woman who had an ectopic pregnancy was refused care in Texas, and she and her husband and her six-year-old son, they had to drive all the way up here. She could have died in front of her little kid at any time.

Just because an opponent wants to say something is partisan does not make it partisan. And frankly, I think these are bipartisan values held by Coloradans and Americans. And my duty as secretary of state is to protect fundamental freedoms.

And that’s a major differentiation in the race.

You’ve also been very public and pushed back on lies and disinformation about the results of the last election. As a consequence, you’ve faced a lot of threats, and election officials in general have faced threats. Could you talk about working in that kind of environment?

So, the threats. You asked what has been different about my tenure? Well, I am very proactive. I see where we can increase access, I’m going to try to run a bill. We write the language, often with partners in the legislature, but I’ve been very proactive in passing laws, been very proactive in issuing rules. I’ve been very proactive in alerting Coloradans and Americans of the role of disinformation.

But part of what makes my tenure really different is that I’ve overseen elections during a global pandemic and with a sitting president of the United States trying to steal the presidency, followed by the worst attack on voting rights in recent times.

And the threats, they started in the summer of 2021. We were having county clerks being threatened for refusing to do fake audits, like what was happening in Arizona. A Republican county clerk was getting death threats over it. I wanted to make it very clear that in the state of Colorado, we are not allowing unauthorized access to voting equipment, so I issued emergency rules laying out that we weren’t going to do that. We already have the best bipartisan audits, called risk-limiting audits. They’ve been adopted in other states; they are great.

Senator Ted Cruz tweets out that I’m stopping all audits and Congresswoman Boebert does, too, and then I start getting threat after threat after threat after threat. Jena, what’s the size of your neck, I want to know for the rope to string you up. Like over and over and over and over.

I really admire you for running in this environment. It takes a lot of courage.

Thank you. Well, it was getting very, very, very, very bad. And then women started coming to me. We had an event last December, and a woman came up to me and said, Hey, I really wanted to run for the state legislature, but I’m seeing all the threats you’re getting, and I have a six-year-old son, and I can’t do it. And I heard there was a woman in the Valley who was telling other women, I really wanted to run for county commissioner, but if the state won’t protect Secretary Griswold, how are they going to protect me?

It all culminated in February, when a group affiliated with Joe Oltmann called for me to be hung. And luckily, media was there. The Denver Post called for the legislature to do something. So after that event, I hired private security, and I just take the view that if you are in the middle of these QAnon conspiracies, if someone says they want to do you harm, you have to take it seriously. I set up my own security, then I led a law through the state legislature so we could get State Patrol protection. Frankly, I won’t be intimidated, I won’t stop. The threats, they feel very personal, but it’s not about me. It’s about the attack on democracy.
But you also have to be smart. Unfortunately, one of the trailblazing things that I’ve had to do was make sure future statewide elected officials have the security that they need.

Do you feel optimistic about the future? And how do we get back to a place that’s less polarized?

I do, but on November 8, 60 percent of Americans will have an election denier on their ballot. There are eleven Big Lie nominees for secretary of state running right now. Nevada, Arizona, Minnesota, New Mexico, Michigan…basically, we’re at this fork in the road, where the great extent of election denialism has already had a major effect, and the sheer fact that so many election deniers are running for legitimacy is really concerning.

If I had a crystal ball, I think Americans are going to reject election-denier candidates. The number-one issue on people’s minds right now in this nation is democracy.

The national MAGA strategy is election denialism, but there are great Republicans standing up to it, there are great Democrats, so it’s really election denialism versus Americans who want the country to be the country that we know. So I’m optimistic that election denialism will be rejected. That doesn’t mean that every denier will lose, or that the attacks on democracy will end, but this election will be one of those turning points in the country’s history. It doesn’t end with one or two election cycles. We have to stay committed to democratic values, the value that Americans get to vote and choose their election officials, the value that no person is over the law, the value that you don’t tilt elections for a political party. I think we’ll get through it.

Read our Q&A with Pam Anderson here.
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Helen Thorpe is a freelance journalist who has written three books of narrative nonfiction about immigrants seeking legal status, veterans returning home from conflict, and refugee families in the midst of resettlement. She has also published a digital only collection of linked personal essays about family, migration, and food.

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