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Jena Griswold signs her oath of office after being sworn in as Colorado's Secretary of State. As the first woman Democrat to hold the office, she wore white in honor of the suffragists. Courtesy of the Secretary of State Office

Why Secretary of State Jena Griswold Sees Democracy as a Superpower

In her first 100 days, Griswold has championed a sweeping package of voting reforms intended to give Coloradans a stronger voice in government.

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Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold’s path to office began with an unlikely venture—a small-town bingo raffle. 

Growing up in Estes Park, Griswold’s mother worked two jobs, yet the family still struggled to make ends meet. “There are times when I vividly remember going to food banks,” Griswold says. To help with finances, Griswold got her first job in 7th grade at the town’s Old Post Office Café. When her savings couldn’t cover a school trip to Washington, D.C. the following year, she went door-to-door asking Estes Park businesses to donate prizes for a bingo raffle to fund a scholarship for the trip. The town’s help inspired Griswold not only to be the first in her family to graduate from a four-year college, but also to go to law school and pursue a career in public service. 

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Today, as the first Democratic woman to become Colorado’s secretary of state, Griswold envisions her role as nothing less than a champion of the people. She now oversees the statewide bingo raffles and charities that boost local communities and plans to cut red tape from new business registrations to give entrepreneurs a leg up. 

But Griswold’s most ambitious goal—and vocal campaign promise—is to fundamentally reform money in politics. Griswold says dark money (spending by political action committees that are not required to disclose donors) enables wealthy interests to drown out the voices of average citizens, which in turn causes them to lose faith in government. “The problem with dark money in politics is that it adds barriers to keep everyday people from leading and participating in our democracy,” she says. “You shouldn’t have to be rich to serve people and to serve in government.”

At the age of 34, Griswold is the nation’s youngest-serving secretary of state, which may help explain her resolve to reimagine an office that Democrats haven’t won for more than 50 years. “I was really determined, because I think this seat, which is often underestimated, can be the protector of our democracy for everyone in Colorado,” she says. “I don’t turn away from a challenge, and Coloradans for better or worse have a fighter in me.”

Adding Transparency & Closing Loopholes

One hundred days into her role, Griswold has initiated a sweeping package of pro-voter election reforms intended to give Coloradans a stronger voice in government. “The great potential equalizer for people is the fact that we live in a democracy,” Griswold says. “Every day, people are able to shape the future of this country.”

Developed in partnership with the state legislature, the omnibus Clean Campaign Act passed the House on Monday on a 41–23 vote along party lines and heads to the Senate State, Veterans, & Military Affairs committee on Thursday. A companion Campaign Finance Enforcement bill is scheduled for a Senate floor vote on Wednesday. They join a third bill—the Lobbyist Transparency Act—that the full Senate will consider Thursday.

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Colorado already has some of the nation’s strictest campaign contribution rules, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, after voters passed a 2002 ballot measure limiting individual donations to political candidates to a maximum of $1,150 for statewide races and $400 for legislative races. However, political Independent Expenditure Committees (IECs), which Griswold describes as Colorado’s version of SuperPACs, can collect and spend unlimited amounts of money to elect or defeat political hopefuls, as long as they don’t directly coordinate with candidates.   

Critics of the 2002 law say imposing strict limits on “hard money” donations simply causes donors to redirect their funds as “soft money” donations to IECs, which are much harder to track. While some favor easing Colorado’s contribution limits, Griswold is advocating for an opposite approach: Keep the current limits and add new rules that shine a light on IEC spending. As other states work to restrict voter access, Griswold says she hopes to make Colorado the nation’s “strongest state for transparency and political spending.”

The Clean Campaign Act would increase transparency by requiring more disclosures of how money is spent on Colorado elections—a solution that is consistently supported by the Supreme Court, according to Rep. Mike Weissman (D-Aurora), one of the bill’s sponsors. “It is not a ban on spending. It is not a ban on contributions. It is just information,” he said during the committee hearing earlier this month.

Currently, Colorado requires IECs to report the groups and individuals it takes money from—but not the original source of the contribution. This distinction is important because it creates a loophole that enables a shell game for hiding political spending. For example, an individual donor who wishes to stay anonymous can contribute limitless funds to a type of nonprofit committee known as a 501(c)(4), which is not required to disclose its donors. That committee can then contribute money to an IEC. By law, the IEC must report that it received money from the 501(c)(4) committee, but not the individual donors who donated to it. “When we’re talking about fixing dark money, it just means providing transparency so that people have a better set of facts about who is trying to influence them,” Griswold says.

The IEC loophole also creates a path for foreign money to play a role in Colorado elections. Although the state bans foreign interests from giving money to candidates or IECs, they can donate to 501(c)(4) committees. “No foreign corporation may expend money on an independent expenditure in connection with an election in the state,” says Griswold, quoting from a copy of the state Constitution she keeps at her desk. “I am charged with upholding that. But how the heck would I even know about it if we don’t have transparency?”

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The Clean Campaign Act closes this loophole by banning foreign contributions to any type of campaign finance committee. “At a time when we see foreign governments trying to influence our national politics, banning foreign money is crucial to making sure that our democracy is strong,” Griswold says.

Additionally, the bill aims to shine more light on spending by billionaires and big corporations by requiring IECs to disclose the original sources of any earmarked contributions of $10,000 or more. Griswold says IECs collected $82 million in Colorado’s 2018 election cycle, of which 75 percent were donations of $100,000 or more and 80 percent came from corporations or hard-to-trace sources. 

Other sections of the bill require companies to disclose their spending on political ads and communications (including online messages) via “paid for by” disclaimers, as well prohibit coordination between IECs and candidates for six months before they officially run for office.

In the Senate, the companion Campaign Finance Enforcement bill would give the secretary of state a more proactive ability to discover, investigate, and enforce campaign finance violations, while still allowing the public to file complaints. The bill formalizes 2018 rules established by Griswold’s predecessor after a federal judge decided that Colorado’s complaint procedures were unconstitutional. “It’s about making sure people are playing by a better set of rules,” Griswold says.

Increasing Access to Voting

Beyond pushing campaign finance reform measures, Griswold wants to make voting more accessible. Colorado, which already has same-day registration and mail-in ballots, tops the nation for registration of eligible voters and boasted the second-highest turnout rate in the 2018 elections, according to the United States Elections Project. But a significant number of eligible Coloradans still aren’t registered to vote. “How do we take the great system we have here in Colorado to the next level?” Griswold asks.

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In a changing electorate, where fewer U.S. citizens (especially young people) are getting driver’s licenses, Griswold wants to expand Colorado’s automatic voter registration beyond state Driver’s License Offices. “We have to make sure that we are thinking about what innovation is coming and how that affects people’s habits,” she says.

Griswold says Medicaid offices are a natural fit for automatic voter registrations, because state systems are already verifying citizenship and residency. To that end, the Automatic Voter Registration bill, which is scheduled for a final Senate vote on Wednesday, would provide a new form of automatic voter registration for eligible citizens who go to Driver’s License Offices or sign up for Medicaid. The state would send a postcard to eligible citizens giving them 20 days to opt out before they are automatically registered to vote. “We need to really make sure that democracy meets people where they are,” Griswold says. 

Griswold also hopes to solve long lines at in-person voting locations. She testified in favor of the Colorado Votes Act, which was sponsored by Rep. Susan Lontine (D-Denver). The bill would expand voting hours on Election Day, increase the number of ballot drop boxes, and allow 17-year-olds who will be 18 on the next general election day to vote in primaries, along with other election code changes. Many county clerks, however, pushed back on the measure, saying it would be too difficult and too expensive to implement by 2020. The House approved several amendments to address those concerns before passing the bill with a 37–27 vote on Tuesday. The bill now heads to the Senate.

Looking to the Future

As one of only 11 women to be individually elected to one of Colorado’s existing statewide offices—secretary of state, attorney general, or state treasurer—Griswold says she is proud to bring a diverse perspective to her historic role at a time when younger women are making inroads in state and national politics. Sources confirm that Griswold is considering a 2020 run for the Senate seat held by Republican Sen. Cory Gardner after being approached by Democratic leaders, as first reported by the Colorado Sun. Colorado is one of five states that has never had a female governor or senator and has a small bench of women candidates with statewide experience to compete for the role.

Inspired by her mother’s perseverance, Griswold also hopes to serve as a role model for other young women and girls. “Dream big, work hard, and be persistent,” she advises. She cites her own journey as proof that hard work pays off: “I’m someone who grew up on food stamps and is able to serve as secretary of state,” she says. “I hope that shows other people that they can be heard and that their voices are valued.”

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