The Final Countdown: Q&A With Secretary of State Candidate Pam Anderson

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 re-election 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 their role, and how best to respond to accusations of election fraud.

First up: Pam Anderson

Westword: You grew up in California — what part of the state?

Pam Anderson: Ventura County, Moorpark. It was a small town when I grew up there; now it’s a bedroom community of the greater Los Angeles area. Really beautiful place. Agricultural community. Grew avocados, walnuts, onions and strawberries.

Your dad was in law enforcement, right?

My dad was thirty years with the California Highway Patrol. I was always really proud; it’s a hard job. That public-service element was a strong undercurrent. My mom was home with us when we were really young, but she went back to work in the schools and then for the city of Moorpark. So there is this public-service background with both of my parents.

And both of my sisters went into law enforcement, with the California Highway Patrol. My middle sister is a chief now, one of the highest-ranking sworn positions, and there have only been a handful of women to achieve that rank. Really tough job, too. My youngest sister has been a field officer for her entire career, and also an accident investigator. Both of their husbands are with the California Highway Patrol. My sister and her husband live in Paradise, California. When that big fire went through, she was the incident commander for that disaster.

What brought you to Colorado?

My husband, Jay, and I met in college. He is a fourth-generation Coloradan. It was either Jay and Colorado or the Peace Corps. Been in Wheat Ridge for 28 years.

I’m going to get back to the Peace Corps someday.

Your mother-in-law is quite well known.

Yes, state Senator Norma Anderson. She has been a big influence. I got a history degree and a master’s in public administration, and when I first moved here, I served as an aide for her as well as three other legislators. She was the first woman to serve as the majority leader in both houses, and her nickname at the Capitol was the Dragon Lady. She was incredibly effective and adept. So I think good governance is what I learned, and constituent work. That’s where I got my start. I enjoyed my time there, never wanted to run for office. Ever.

So how did you end up running for the position of city clerk in Wheat Ridge, and then clerk and recorder of Jefferson County?

I loved history and thought I would go into the classics, but I have a pragmatic approach and a particular interest in local government, so I thought, master’s in public administration. The kids were young, three and five at the time. We went to the rec center here in Wheat Ridge, and there was a petition being circulated.
They were taking a stance in opposition to the city council. So I signed the petition, and then I called my city council member and said, I disagree with what you are doing. He was like, We’re doing the opposite. They had placed a fraudulent cover sheet on the petition, to get people to sign it. So I protested my signature. And then I heard that group was running a candidate for city clerk, and I was offended by that notion. It probably goes back to my law-and-order, right-and-wrong background.

I was going on and on about it to my husband, and he was like, You ought to run — it’s right up your alley. I ran and won, and was really taken with the public interaction and educating the public about the processes. And dipping my toe into elections administration, I recognized right away that I loved that part. So I ran for Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder.

Can you explain the role of a clerk and recorder?

You are on the front line for citizens interacting with their government. You are the keeper of public records, you are an administrator of processes like licensing, and it’s a high-volume customer-service job. You are providing access to items like motor vehicle license plates, and that involved millions of transactions for my county. You are recording people’s deeds. That is the foundation for capitalism: transferring their property, enabling them to have wealth and advancement.

And it is also a leadership management job. For the city clerk role at Wheat Ridge, it was me, a deputy and a part-time person — so very similar to a rural county clerk, doing a lot with a few people. But then for the county clerk position in Jefferson County, when I went in, there were 122 full-time employees working in five divisions, so it was a big management job.

In that role, I got to be on the front line of history in so many ways. I was able to issue the first same-sex marriage license in Colorado. Being a swing county in a swing state, I also had to push back on both sides for a fair process. And this is central to why I’m running right now: Your job is to provide a fair and equitable process for every voter. So I had a reputation for being very fair with the parties, but also firm when they tried to mess with stuff. And I saw interest groups aligned with both the left and the right looking for an angle or an advantage that wasn’t in the best interest of voters. It was exciting.

How did you come to play a leadership role at the state level?

I served as the legislative co-chair of the county clerks’ association, and then as president of the association for five and a half years, and was able to lead on every major reform we have done here in Colorado.

Can you describe some of those reforms? Why is it important to have voter-verified paper ballots?

We have voted in different ways over the years. Back in the day, it was lever machines, right? And when I came in, we had punch cards with the hanging chads. As a county clerk, I inherited a system where we had a hybrid approach: People could request a mail ballot or they could vote in person on touch screens that were digital. We downloaded those selections onto a thumb drive and took those to another computer, but there was no paper trail.

There was a big debate on verifiability, and that made sense to me. So I became an advocate for voter-marked paper ballots. Your mail ballot is on paper, and you mark that ballot, or you vote in person and we have ballot-marking devices that print your selections on a piece of paper. I became an advocate for independent public verifiability so we could have confidence. It wasn’t just me as an elections official saying “Trust us.”

And I won an award for our development of risk-limited audits.

Let’s unpack that. What does that term mean, exactly?

We had audits when I started. The election would happen, we would do a pre-audit to make sure that the machine counted right, and then after, we would randomly sample 2,000 ballots, and we would rescan them to see if the results matched. But that essentially just says the machines are still working. It doesn’t tell us live how well the machine did.

A risk-limited audit looks at how that entire ballot was counted by that calculator. We look at how the equipment saw the marks and counted the marks. So it is a more accurate and valid process of auditing. I’m incredibly proud of that work.
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Pam Anderson meets a voter on the campaign trail
You also did a lot of work on maintaining accurate voter lists. Why is that so important?

The federal government requires that we maintain accurate voter rolls. Having the most accurate lists, particularly when you are mailing ballots, is important, because it is inefficient to mail ballots to voters who no longer live at old addresses, and it is costly.

Colorado was one of the first eight states that took data and put it together, so if people move between those states, we can automatically update addresses, or if someone dies, we can update that information, and we can share Social Security data to have cleaner lists. We now have 31 states doing this, and we expanded to include Medicare or Medicaid data as well. When I started, we had a 10 or 12 percent undeliverable rate, and by the time I left, our undeliverable rates were at 3 or 4 percent.
I admire you for running for office in the current atmosphere. What led you to get into the race?

It was a tough decision. I was finding a lot of reward in my work around elections here and in other states. I left the position of executive director for the clerks’ association to focus more on my work in elections. I have my own business where I’ve gone all across the country advising states and jurisdictions about how they can improve their elections. I was in Georgia for the hand recount in 2020, helping jurisdictions reconcile their paper ballots; I was in Philadelphia, I was in Clark County, helping them assess their process after 2020.

But one of the things that was really hard was seeing up close the increased politicization of these roles. Tina Peters was one of the county clerks that I taught in my clerk training, and I had other county clerks in that class who had also run for the position for different reasons than I had. It was very evident. And I saw a different approach with my opponent, Secretary Griswold. I had concerns. After moving the ball on reform, I was dismayed by how divisive things were getting, and how these offices were being used more as political platforms, as opposed to the non-partisan philosophy that I believe in.

How do you respond to people who say the last presidential election was stolen?

I have been in every room that I can. It is a mission for me in this campaign. I say I’m an evidence-based elections person. I have so much confidence because we’ve been able to develop these processes, so the public gets to independently verify results.

And I understand; I had some of the same questions, back when I became clerk. I know we do signature verification, but how do I know the process is working right? Being a pointy-headed geek, I did a quality-assurance audit. Are my judges getting tired? Is my training good? Do we have any nefarious actors who are just going through and rejecting everything or just accepting everything? So checking things, with every election, is what I became an expert on.

There is conspiracy, lies, and a lot of disinformation about this. I say this is my experience, this is what I know, what do you have questions about? I’ve experienced people who fall into two groups. A small number of people are never going to change their minds — there are a small number of people you are not going to convince, and it’s based on outcome, period. There are a larger number of people who have been influenced by the lie. When I go into these rooms, there is a lot of passion, anxiety, anger. When I go into a room, it is 75 percent questioning, minimum. But I have seen the room change. And that’s a big deal for me. It has been very gratifying. It’s been hard, but gratifying.

What brings about the change?

What I believe makes a difference is showing up and taking it from the partisan, political, and bringing it to the professional and informational, and being credible. And I’ve been able to do that by being above the fray, sticking strong to my professional ethics, being adept at my knowledge and my craft, and standing firm — always being the grownup in the room.

Just a few weeks ago, I was in Basalt, with a group of 25 people, and on one side of the room, there were three or four — they were Tina folks — and in the Q&A part, they essentially took over. And I said, Well, I disagree. This is why.

At one point, one of the men yelled, “Bullshit!” And I said, Well, I respectfully disagree. And I’m going to turn my cheek and see if we have questions on this side of the room.

I was an umpire in college. There are people who are very angry, and I’m not sure I convinced them, but I will continue to go to the rooms. And I think showing up matters.

Do you mean that an umpire has to stay cool in the moment, even if the fans are overexcited?

And firm about your role, and being able to explain.

I think you’re saying that the information you’re imparting is part of what has been reassuring, but it’s also your manner that is equally important in terms of establishing credibility.

Yes. I think that’s leadership. I firmly believe that standing up and defending democracy in a way that isn’t partisan, polarizing or intentionally divisive is how we restore confidence.

And it doesn’t raise a lot of money, it doesn’t get the sound bites. But I am incredibly disturbed by either side using these platforms in that way. It is using the platform for short-term gain that does long-term damage. Short-term gain for a politician, long-term damage to our democracy.
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Pam Anderson is running for Colorado Secretary of State in November.
Are you speaking about your opponent?

I’m speaking about all of my opponents. You can be a politically passionate and committed person and hold the values of this office above the fray and find ways to cross the aisle.

Even the people that I fervently disagree with, there is no way we will ever influence that by vilifying them, or saying they’re unpatriotic, or making it partisan. I have become a better election official by listening to activists and asking, Is there something there that can lead to a better process to give them more confidence? And trying to sift through the animosity.

Do you think there is a problem with somebody in the secretary of state role taking a stance on issues such as abortion rights or equal access to marriage? And if so, why?

This has come up on the campaign trail, both in the primary and now with Jena. We have very different philosophies, and here’s mine. I have positions on the most important issues of the day, but I believe strongly that as a defender of democracy, we have to double down on being the fair referee. I am a pro-choice woman, but it is not the center point of my campaign, because I have to be a fair referee of the process.

I’ve never endorsed a candidate, I don’t disclose who I’m going to vote for or how I voted. I don’t want to influence the process in any way, unless it has a direct nexus to the work that I’m doing. An example would be marriage equality: As a county clerk, I said what my position was on marriage equality because I issued marriage licenses.

Otherwise, you feel a candidate for this office should not take stances on divisive issues?

Even if you can be fair, the perception is damaging. I’m not saying that Jena hasn’t administered an initiative fairly. What I’m saying is, if the perception is that she’s not fair, that does damage. Particularly in this moment, we should double down on that fair referee.

Do you feel optimistic about the future? How do we get to a better place?

I do feel optimistic, because I have served and continue to serve with thousands of election officials — Republican, Democrat and Unaffiliated — who are standing in the breach. Why am I running? Because I want to represent exactly what they’re doing. We need more leaders who aren’t going to think about politics first. I have concerns that they are leaving in large numbers — we saw a 30 percent turnover in 2018. I want to stabilize that partnership with the local election officials, the judges, the watchers, and restore confidence in nonpartisan professionalism. I think that’s how we get through this.

You were featured on the cover of Time magazine along with Brad Raffensperger and other officials who are credited with fighting to save our elections process.

I was a little embarrassed but also honored by the Time article. I was proud to be featured in that group. I’ve had one conversation with Brad as a candidate. He’s in a leadership role in the national association of secretaries of state, and I had won my primary and it was a congratulatory call. And I mentioned that I had been on the ground in Georgia for the recount. I congratulated him for that work. They did a lot in preparation for 2020. They had only been using paper ballots for eighteen months, and reconciling a hand count was no small feat — five million ballots in five days. It was remarkable. So it was essentially a mutual-admiration call.

What do the next couple of weeks look like for you?

It’s a sprint to the finish. Everything is going to be about encouraging people to vote and to get the word out as best as we can, to send the message of who I am and why I’m running. Ballots are about to go out, and our military and overseas voters are already voting. So it is crunch time.

I can only imagine the energy it takes to run in this environment.

It does — though I have to admit, with my kids being adults now, it’s different than when my kids were little. I have more bandwidth. They’re all grown up. They’ve been amazing. Campaigns impact your family significantly, even adult kids. And when I was deciding — I never have to ask my husband, because he’s like, Yeah. He’s always been that way. But for my kids, I wanted to make sure they knew. It is really different now, with the social media environment. And they were like, Absolutely, Mom.

Then right before I was going to a meeting where I was going to say I decided to get in, I texted them and said, “Hey, last chance.” They both FaceTimed me; I had to pull over. And they’re like, You’re meant to do this. They had seen my work. They had watched me going around the country in my RV to different states in 2020 and 2021. And going up to Chaffee County and volunteering to be Lori Mitchell’s deputy clerk, because she had been threatened.

So I was very proud of my kids, you know? They get it.

Can you explain what happened in Chaffee County?

Lori Mitchell is a fine, fine clerk and a friend. Eric Coomer, one of the former employees of Dominion, lives in Salida, and as a result, Joe Oltmann and those groups began a campaign up there, and it stirred up very scary elements. Lori asked if I would come up and help. Being an election official in Jefferson County, we’ve had hundreds of watchers, because we want that public, bipartisan scrutiny to help with confidence. So I volunteered as her deputy clerk, ran her watcher program. I drove my RV up there, parked in her back alley, and we stood shoulder to shoulder during the election. This was in November of 2021; it was a nonpartisan school board election. And I interacted with all the watchers and the party chairs, and said, This is the way this is going to go. We wanted to make sure that we had a safe and calm environment in which voters could vote. Again, being professional but firm. It’s very effective.

I feel like every time I run for office, it’s been a cause, a mission. Running for office is hard. It’s not a natural state for me. The public-service side is much more comfortable for me. But this is a mission. And I’m not interested in going to the U.S. Senate. This is an extension of my professional life, and this is a destination for me.

I do believe we’re at a critical moment in time. I was asked last night what if Trump was elected in 2024. You stand up even when it’s not politically convenient. And I just keep doing that. And I’m representing thousands of election officials that have done it every day. Win or lose, I’ll still be doing this work, but I do hope I get the opportunity to get that platform to stand in the breach for what we’ve built here. And to continue to innovate and improve.

Read our Q&A with Jena Griswold 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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