Jena Griswold just might be the most polarizing figure in Colorado politics today.
To her supporters, she’s a pioneer: the first Democratic woman to hold the Secretary of State's office and one of less than a dozen women to hold statewide office in Colorado. She’s fought to expand ballot access and battled voter suppression.
She’s stood up to figures of authority — particularly former President Donald Trump — via tweets and the cable news circuit to defend and showcase Colorado’s “gold standard” voting infrastructure. She’s overseen three successful statewide elections, including an eagerly anticipated Super Tuesday showdown and the first modern presidential contest to be held in the midst of a global pandemic, all while boosting turnout to record-setting levels.
“She’s done an excellent job,” said League of Women Voters of Colorado executive director Beth Hendrix. “I believe that she is working to strengthen Colorado's already strong election systems.”
For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction, and as vocal as Griswold’s supporters are, her critics are just as outspoken.
“I think that she is highly political,” said Susan Barnes-Gelt, a Democrat and former Denver city councilwoman. “I don't think the Secretary of State's office ought to be partisan in any way; it ought to be nonpartisan.”
Aside from battling with Trump on Twitter, critics point to what they see as a series of missteps that have politicized the office to the detriment of voter confidence in some quarters. Five months into her tenure in May 2019, Griswold’s office ran a press release calling for a boycott of Alabama over the state's abortion ban. But first, it asked for edits and suggestions from Planned Parenthood, a political organization cheered and vilified in equal measure, depending on where one falls on the ideological spectrum.
A month after that, she formed a highly publicized exploratory committee to examine a run at U.S. Senate. That furthered criticisms in some circles that she is politically ambitious and takes credit for the work done by her predecessors and county clerks — with whom she has had a rocky relationship — as a springboard to higher office.
And more recently she offered full-throated support for Congress’ H.R. 1. That measure from U.S. House Democrats is aimed at expanding voting rights and appears poised to do so in many states. But her predecessor, Republican Wayne Williams, now a Colorado Springs City Council member, says the bill as drafted would hurt, not help, the administration of Colorado's elections.
“I think what that illustrates is the challenge when you have someone come from a political background, as opposed to actually running an election background,” said Williams, a lawyer who had served as El Paso County's election chief before being elected to the statewide office.
Griswold’s backers say those criticisms have an air of thinly veiled sexism — that men are ambitious and bring new blood, while women with the same ambitions are labeled inexperienced and politically bent. Of the 10 Colorado secretaries of state since 1974, six are women, with Griswold the sixth to hold the title but the first Democratic woman.
Her backers include Michal Rosenoer, the recently departed executive director of Emerge Colorado and an Edgewater city council member. Before she led Emerge, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, Rosenoer and Griswold went through the organization’s program together.
Rosenoer said she “absolutely” sees attacks on Griswold as sexist.
“I think when general members of the public see one thing that could be attributed to sexism, it's easy to ignore it,” she said. “But I see 40 instances of things that could be attributed to sexism every day in politics and it's much more obvious to somebody whose job it is to root this out and push up against those systems, when there's real sexism at play.”
As with most things Griswold-adjacent, not everyone agrees.
“That’s bullshit,” Barnes-Gelt said of the allegations. “Young, unqualified people, male and female — that's the trope now.”
Williams also batted down Griswold's defense.
“It has nothing to do with what gender someone has," he said. "It has to do with what you say and do.”
Just what has Griswold, 36, said and done?
She cruised to victory over Williams as part of the blue wave that swept the country in 2018. Williams was viewed in Republican circles as a future candidate for governor, and he's still a contender to succeed former Colorado Attorney General John Suthers as Colorado Springs mayor.
Griswold beat him by a convincing 8-point margin.
Before taking office in 2019, Griswold's experience in the political arena was as a voter protection attorney for former President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, as well as director of former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Washington, D.C., office.
While those roles jump off of her resume, Griswold said in an interview with Colorado Politics earlier this month her blue-collar upbringing serves her well in her current capacity.
At age 10, she moved with her family from Toledo, Ohio, to the outskirts of Estes Park and the riverside community of Drake. From a family getting by on food stamps, Griswold said she started working the summer after seventh grade, starting as a dishwasher before moving on to a number of roles, including waitress and book editor.
From there, she went on to be become the first member of her family to go to a four-year university — Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington — before graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. Griswold said she was motivated to go to college by seeing Colorado families struggling and wanting to give back.
“It's really formative to my worldview and, as secretary of state, my passion for making sure that everyday people have their voices heard and a seat at the table,” she said. “We do that through various ways in our democracy: voting, through having our voices heard on issues, making sure that our representatives hear us and not just lobbyists.”
After law school, Griswold practiced international anti-corruption law at Paul Hastings LLP, another experience she said informs how she goes about her day-to-day business as secretary of state.
“When we're talking about stopping voter suppression, campaign finance reform and lobbyist reform, what we're really talking about is anti-corruption,” she said. “Making sure that special interests aren't using the tools of government, or even elected officials using the tools of government, to fortify their own positions.”
Legislative wins and losses
To that end, she championed the Clean Campaign Act of 2019 and an accompanying campaign finance reform bill. It’s one of the first things her supporters point to in touting her accomplishments, noting those measures also kept a campaign promise to address money in politics.
The Clean Campaign Act was intended to bring sunlight to so-called “dark money” support by requiring organizations that contribute to Colorado Super PACs to disclose donors. An analysis by the Colorado Sun, however, found loopholes in that bill were exploited to the tune of nearly $3 million on one 2019 ballot question seeking to end TABOR revenue limits.
Griswold is also leading the charge on a piece of legislation this session seeking to block foreign money from influencing Colorado elections. That bill cleared committee in the Senate but lawmakers in that chamber kicked the can down the road on considering it before the full body eight times before laying it over until mid-August, well after the General Assembly is expected to have adjourned for the year.
But it was another piece of legislation that Griswold was involved in drafting in 2019 that truly made a splash, both with her supporters and her detractors. House Bill 1278 addressed long election day lines by requiring clerks to expand drop boxes and polling places, a measure that her supporters' credit in part for the successful administration of the 2020 election.
The problem though, was that the county clerks who are charged with the actual administration of elections were not consulted ahead of time.
The bill as introduced drew strong opposition from the Colorado County Clerks Association, including testimony in opposition from Democratic clerks in Eagle, Pueblo, Routt and Summit counties, as well as Republican clerks from Douglas, El Paso and Fremont counties. It took more than 100 amendments to eventually move the clerks' association to a neutral position.
Some clerks compared her process with Williams'.
“Wayne really did a tremendous job of being collaborative with the clerks to foster new ideas and to push things forward,” said Matt Crane, the recently appointed executive director of CCCA and a former Republican Arapahoe County clerk. “He understood the mission, how elections work at a county level — he had that background where other secretaries haven't had that.”
The bill was the first in a series of incidents detailed by Colorado Public Radio that strained relations between Griswold and some county clerks from both parties in the lead-up to the 2020 election. Crane said the clerks are working to leave their differences with Griswold in the past.
“I will say that since I've come on board, the secretary has been very welcoming, she's called to get my opinion on things,” Crane said of Griswold. “I am hopeful that the relationship with the association can be rebuilt.”
Tiffany Lee, the GOP La Plata County clerk, mirrored that sentiment. Lee in October laid out for CPR the level of deterioration in Griswold’s relationship with some clerks. Six months later, Lee said she’s ready to turn the page.
“In my view, last year is history, and we need to move forward and do our best for our constituents and really just try our best to work together,” Lee said.
The presidential election
That cooperation will be necessary as election officials seek to rebuild trust and counter the misinformation that has swirled in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
Doug Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa and one of the United States’ foremost experts on election security, said that 2020 delivered “probably among the best elections we've ever had in terms of the accuracy of the vote count.”
“The reason for that in significant part was the fact that the election was so deeply contested and so strongly contested by both sides, and that both sides had their observers out in force, and the election officials were running the election under very intense scrutiny from both sides,” Jones said in an interview. “Under those circumstances, election officials tend to be more careful than usual.”
But reassurances from Jones and his ilk have not deterred conspiracy theories and misinformation about last fall’s election from reaching the Colorado state Capitol.
A special December meeting of the Legislative Audit Committee called by Republican Rep. Lori Saine, who was term-limited and succeeded in January to probe whether the election, as Trump alleged, was rigged and what could be done to improve Colorado's security.
Jones was contacted by the lawyer who filed an unsuccessful lawsuit in Nevada to overturn Joe Biden's win there, as well as the lead technical expert who wrote an affidavit for Sydney Powell, a lawyer for the former president who alleged an international conspiracy with Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems. Powell is being sued by Dominion for $1.3 billion. Her defense includes that her claims were so outlandish no reasonable person would have believed her.
Jones said both the Nevada lawyer and Powell’s expert laid out for him their alleged evidence, which he described as “bonkers.” According to Jones, the interaction with Powell’s expert was particularly strange.
“He managed to convince me that he was trying to sell me on what he was asserting, but he never managed to convince me that he believed what he was asserting; that was a really weird situation. I had this impression that he was trying to pull a Borat on me,” Jones said, referencing the practical-joking character portrayed by actor Sacha Baron Cohen.
It’s in this environment fraught with mistrust and misinformation that Griswold is charged with asserting leadership. And Williams worries that some of the actions that may be perceived as partisan could have already poisoned the well for some on the right.
He put particular emphasis on Griswold’s support for H.R. 1, and two provisions in particular he said would undermine Colorado’s election system.
One would push back the deadline to return ballots from Election Day, in most cases, to a week later, which Williams said would diminish voter confidence and delay results. He said the proposal also would overturn Colorado’s signature-verification process, a measure widely praised as vital to ensuring integrity of the ballot.
“There's an irony, because when President Trump attacked Colorado election law, there was a response from the Secretary of State's Office saying, ‘That's not accurate, Colorado election laws are good,’” he said. “And yet when the Democrats in Congress are trying to overturn Colorado election law, it's the opposite.”
Griswold stands behind the concept.
“There are things that we're working with the U.S. Senate on to make sure that it works really well with our system," she said. "They've been very open-ears and you know how the legislative grinding works: Things get amended, things get fixed, and they've been really responsive so far.”
To Williams, partisanship erodes trust.
“Ultimately if your goal is to have elections that have confidence, you have to have both sides involved and supportive of it,” he said.
Without specifying Griswold, Crane said officials involved with overseeing elections have a duty to be nonpartisan.
“I realize we're dealing with elected officials, but you have to stay above the fray with politics,” he said. “Especially coming out of the 2020 general election where there was so much disinformation that polluted our discourse and really hurt the public confidence in elections, it's more important than ever now for election administrators to stay above the fray.
“We have to be the grown-ups in the room and that's true of clerks and recorders, that's true of secretaries of State, that's true of everybody.”
Rosenoer said she saw things differently and that the repercussions for Griswold’s partisan actions, if they could even be described as such, would come at the ballot box.
“I think that it's easy to say (Griswold should stay above the fray), but in the end, the voters get to decide, and they should get to decide how partisan feels too partisan to them,” she said. “But in the end, Jena won her race with an overwhelming majority, and she's looking really good for her reelection campaign, as well.”
Partisanship in the secretary of state’s office is hardly new.
Williams’ predecessor, Republican Scott Gessler, faced harsher criticisms of partisanship with a tangible investigation to back it up. In 2013, the state Independent Ethics Commission ruled Gessler violated ethics standards when he used money from his state budget to pay roundtrip airfare for two GOP events in Florida, the Republican National Lawyers Association and Republican National Convention in Tampa the year before.
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Gessler lost, costing Colorado taxpayers more than $515,000.
This month, Gessler finished second in the race to be the Colorado Republican Party chairman.
And while Democrats howled about Gessler, who was preparing an unsuccessful run for governor at the time, they're largely silent on Griswold playing politics in public office.
Before that, The Denver Post editorial board called for Republican Secretary of State Gigi Dennis “to take off her Republican Party badge and provide neutral supervision of the 2006 election campaign” after she attempted to issue a rule that would effectively stifle political donations by unions.
Some of Griswold’s backers argue a degree of partisanship is necessary to survive in the job. The last Democratic secretary of State, Bernie Buescher, won plaudits from both sides of the aisle for the nonpartisan way in which he went about the job. He served just two years in office and lost to Gessler by six points.
Still, Williams’ critiques raise a difficult question: how much of a responsibility does Griswold have to engender trust among Republicans when many on the right are fueling the misinformation and conspiracy theories about election administration that Jones described as “bonkers?”
“I think she has a responsibility to the state of Colorado, but she can't make everybody happy,” said Toni Larson, the League of Women Voters of Colorado’s director of action and advocacy. “The tough thing is that you could tell people all the facts in the world and they're not going to believe you.”
“It's really hard to change people's minds once they've made up their minds,” he said. “I think the responsibility of the election officials is to make sure that the election process is transparent enough that someone who's suspicious can come in and see the evidence.”
To that end, Jones said he believes Colorado sets a “pretty high standard for its basic procedures” but added outside-the-box thinking on transparency would be necessary to restore trust in elections. And he had some suggestions:
A “playbill” laying out for the untrained eye of a rookie election observer who is doing what and why. QR codes on the walls at ballot tabulation locations with similar information to guard against deceptively edited videos. Optional election administration training for observers to boost their understanding of the process.
But Jones’ solutions come with a degree of the presumption that some on either the distributing side or the receiving side of election misinformation are good actors who simply don’t understand what they are seeing or don’t know enough about election administration to understand they are being misled. Larson said that’s not always the case.
“People deliberately put out false information to meet their own purposes, to stay in power and to get done what they think is the right thing to do,” she said.
So how can Griswold lead in a time where she’s facing deliberate attempts to undermine her work and the work of her colleagues across the country?
“I don’t think there’s a good answer to that,” Larson said. “She certainly needs to be even-handed and from there you try your darnedest to do the best that you can within your biases.
“I don't know that you can go beyond that.”