Democrat Jena Griswold, the attorney and first-time candidate who unseated Secretary of State Wayne Williams in a blue wave that pummeled Republicans up and down Colorado’s ballot, says she knew she had a chance a year ago when she attended a candidates forum in a small town on the eastern plains.
“Sixty people showed up to a four-hour-long forum in Brush,” Griswold said. “I thought, ‘There’s some interest and some momentum here.’”
Griswold had come out swinging a few months earlier, blasting Williams while the incumbent was navigating the controversy created by the Trump administration’s request for Colorado voter registration data.
Although Williams insisted he would only turn over public data available to anyone who asked for it, he came under sustained fire for quickly agreeing to comply at the same time Republican election officials in other states rebuffed the White House, some even suing the administration to block the request.
Within weeks, thousands of Colorado voters had canceled their registration.
A flurry of legal challenges eventually led the White House to shutter the commission, but not before Griswold had what became one of her main lines of attack on Williams.
“As secretary of state, I will demand that the federal government respects Coloradans’ constitutional right to vote and our rights to privacy. I will ensure that every Coloradan can exercise his or her constitutional right to vote, enhance our elections’ cybersecurity, increase campaign finance transparency, and make government easier for Coloradans,” Griswold said when she launched her campaign, enumerating the issues she would hammer through the election.
“Our messages were really resonating, especially now when we’re seeing untypical leadership coming out of Washington,” Griswold said after the election.
She raised nearly $1 million, more than three times what Williams brought in, and spent much of it to air a TV ad that depicted the Estes Park native working her way through school as a waiter and selling her car for $400 to pay for a plane ticket to attend law school on the East Coast.
Still, political observers were stunned on election night when Griswold, 34, defeated Williams, the only incumbent on the statewide ballot and a former El Paso County commissioner and clerk and recorder.
With a small number of votes still left to tabulate a week after the polls closed, Williams was trailing Griswold by about 7.5 percentage points.
She’s the first Democrat elected to the post in 60 years and will be the first Democratic woman to hold the office, which runs Colorado’s elections and keeps track of businesses and charities that operate in the state.
With her victory still fresh, Griswold said she was eager to get to work.
“We are full-steam ahead trying to organize the transition,” she said, adding that Williams has been “very gracious.”
“The people in the Secretary of State’s Office do a great job,” she said. “I want to lead the office in an innovative way.”
She said she’s meeting with the office’s staff to look at next year’s budget and is getting in touch with county clerks — many of whom endorsed Williams — and other groups, including America Votes and Common Cause, to work out her policy agenda.
“I want to do as much as we can to increase transparency. I think Colorado can be a leader on campaign finance transparency and disclosure,” she said. “I’ve been talking about wanting to audit campaign finance filings. We have to create the mechanism to do that.”
It’s premature to discuss what her legislative package might look like in detail, Griswold said, but it will likely include tweaking the legal definition of “electioneering” and requiring more “paid-for-by” disclosures on campaign material.
She also campaigned on requiring presidential candidates to disclose their federal tax returns to get a spot on Colorado’s ballot — a proposal aimed at President Donald Trump’s refusal to release his returns in 2016, breaking with decades of tradition among major party candidates.
Griswold said she’s also exploring how to require more transparency from nonprofits whose donors to political campaigns are shielded under law, including entities known as C4s — named after a section of the federal tax code.
“C4s don’t have to give to an (independent expenditure committee, or IE) at all. They can urge their donors to give directly to the IE. But in the instances where they want to, let’s make sure that real people are being reported,” Griswold said.
“The basic idea is, under constitutional law, you can’t require a C4 to blanket-disclose all its donors, because a donor might not want the money to be used politically. What we can do is put the burden on the C4 and say, ‘First and foremost, you don’t have to do any IE spending at all. If you choose to do so in Colorado, you have a duty to talk to your donors and ask them, “Do you want your money being spent for political purposes?”
If so, she said, that money would have to be disclosed on state campaign finance reports.
“Those campaign finance laws are important,” Griswold said. “They’re about the right of a citizen in a democracy to know who’s trying to influence the outcome of elections.”
Griswold, who lives in Louisville, has spent plenty of time abroad, from a stint as a high school foreign exchange student in Argentina to work investigating crimes against humanity in Venezuela with a human rights group while she was in law school.
She spent a semester in Botswana while attending Washington state’s Whitman College and studied salsa dancing on a post-graduate fellowship that took her to Japan, Germany, Brazil, Panama, Spain and Puerto Rico. Fluent in Spanish, Griswold also speaks Portuguese and has a basic understanding of Arabic, French and Setswana, mostly spoken in southern Africa.
After working for a couple of years as an attorney, she was part of the 2012 Obama campaign’s voter protection team. Gov. John Hickenlooper tapped Griswold to open and run an office representing the state of Colorado in Washington, D.C. After that, she returned to Colorado and worked as an adviser to the state’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.
Before running for secretary of state, Griswold operated a small law firm, representing marijuana concerns and conservation groups.
Another focus once she takes office, Griswold said, will be maintaining Colorado’s cybersecurity lead when it comes to voter registration and election operations, which won national acclaim for Williams as Colorado has been routinely ranked as the safest state to conduct an election.
“I don’t want to be alarmist at all; I want to be a realist,” Griswold said. Just because SCORE” — the state’s online voter registration system — “didn’t go down this year doesn’t mean we don’t have to fortify it. It’s the same with cybersecurity.”
She said she received a congratulatory call from Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner right after the election and told him she wants to work with him on federal funding for cybersecurity.
“It’s something I plan to really fight for, to make sure our systems are ready to go. I think there’s a lack of leadership out of Congress and the White House on this. We have to continue to innovate,” Griswold said.
“We have taken major steps forward, but it’s not something that stops. You’re always trying to get ahead of what can happen. The 2020 election is right around the corner.”