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On June 17, 2021, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold took a stand against election deniers. Then the death threats started pouring in.
Early that morning, Griswold’s office issued rules prohibiting third parties from accessing voting equipment in the state to conduct what she called “sham audits” of election results. The announcement came as a group with no experience auditing elections was leading a review of ballots in Maricopa County, Arizona. That effort had been motivated by the false belief that the results of the 2020 election had been manipulated to prevent President Donald Trump from winning—a belief that had been promulgated by Trump himself.
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In announcing the rules, Griswold noted that several counties in the Centennial State had been contacted by similar third-party vendors offering to perform audits, which she deemed insecure and unnecessary because the state conducts its own risk-limiting reviews. The partisan response was swift. “This is just odd,” Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz tweeted. “Who puts out rules saying, ‘NO AUDITS ALLOWED!’ Only those with something to hide.”
In the days that followed, Griswold received a huge spike in death threats from people who believed the decision to limit outside reviews showed evidence of malfeasance. “They come in every way—text messages, email, DMs, posts on social media,” Griswold says. “They include things like, ‘What is the size of your neck? I want to know for the rope. I am going to hang you from a tree.’ ”
According to Griswold, there were so many efforts to intimidate her that the Colorado State Patrol could barely keep up with them. Indeed, the threats were so serious that Griswold advocated for a state bill, signed into law this past spring, that provides her and other election workers with extra security. Additionally, it increased penalties for people who threaten election workers. (The Colorado General Assembly passed a related bill, which Griswold also supported, that protects state elections from security breaches and other dangers.)
“There didn’t used to be as much awareness in the public of what the [secretary of state’s] office did and the importance of it,” says Wayne Williams, a Republican who served as Colorado’s secretary of state from 2015 to 2019. “There have always been people who have complained or had concerns about elections, but when you have a former president making those complaints, it adds more visibility to it all.”
Despite the threats, Griswold, who will be 38 on October 2 and is the youngest secretary of state in the country, hasn’t shied away from controversy. During her first term, she has defended Colorado’s voting system and called out critics and election deniers, which made her one of the most prominent election officials in the country. That approach has also led detractors—including, not surprisingly, Pam Anderson, Griswold’s Republican opponent in the upcoming November election—to deem her too partisan for a role in charge of ensuring safe and fair elections. With the continued efforts to sow doubt in the security of American elections, what had once looked to be a sleepy race for Colorado’s secretary of state is likely to garner both attention and large amounts of campaign money—and the result could significantly impact the post going forward.
In her 2010 book, State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process, Jocelyn Benson, the former dean of Wayne State University Law School, who was elected as Michigan’s secretary of state in 2018, wrote that for much of the 20th century, the role “was relatively unnoticed and publicly unremarkable.” That began to change with the 2000 election, when then Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican, oversaw a controversial re-count in the presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore while simultaneously serving as the Florida chairwoman for the Bush campaign. “At the time, many Americans seemed rather struck by the idea that, in a number of states, the secretary of state’s office is elected, it’s partisan,” says Seth Masket, the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.
Despite increased awareness about the role, secretaries of state remained relatively obscure in the early part of the 21st century but occasionally landed in the headlines for taking stances on who could vote. In Colorado, for example, Scott Gessler, a Republican who served as secretary of state from 2011 to 2015, advocated for a law requiring people to show proof of citizenship to vote; many Democrats said the law would disenfranchise naturalized citizens, mostly Latinos, who were less likely to have the required forms of documentation, such as a birth certificate. Gessler also sent a letter to 3,903 registered voters questioning their status to cast a ballot. Only 141 of them, less than .004 percent of the state’s then 3.5 million voters, were found to be noncitizens.
For the most part, though, secretaries of state did quiet work behind the scenes to ensure safe and fair elections. “The Colorado secretary of state’s office has generally been seen as doing a pretty good job,” Masket says. “Colorado has developed an election system over the last decade or more that is generally considered one of the best in the country—and that’s been developed by both Republican and Democratic administrations.”
The stature of the office changed dramatically in March 2020, when COVID-19 upended every aspect of our lives, including elections. To allow people to vote without fear of contracting an extremely contagious virus, many states began considering using more robust vote-by-mail balloting systems. As momentum grew for mail-in balloting, Trump claimed, without evidence, that the practice was an easy target for fraud. “Suddenly,” Griswold says, “the right to vote was in peril.”
At the time, Colorado was one of five states that sent mail-in ballots to every registered voter. And as the only Democratic secretary of state from a place that offered the option to every citizen, Griswold became one of the leading experts defending the practice. She was a frequent guest on cable news programs and was regularly quoted in national media outlets, in which she discussed the nuances of signature verification and maintaining accurate data on voters’ mailing addresses. She also wasn’t afraid to confront politicians she believed were misleading the public, even going so far as to threaten to refer Trump to the Colorado Attorney General for prosecution because of his role in encouraging voter fraud.
The November 2020 election in Colorado tallied the state’s highest voter turnout in history, with more than 86 percent of registered and active voters (close to 3.3 million people) casting ballots, and there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud. But Republican claims that the election was rigged for President Joe Biden and other Democrats continued across the country, eventually leading to the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
In Colorado, the effort to delegitimize the vote manifested itself most overtly on the Western Slope. In May 2021, Mesa County clerk and recorder Tina Peters allowed unauthorized people to access voting equipment and to attend a software security update. One individual made copies of the hard drives and posted photos of the machines online. A Mesa County grand jury subsequently indicted Peters on multiple charges related to the breach, and Griswold worked with county commissioners to put former Secretary of State Williams and county treasurer Sheila Reiner in charge of the region’s 2021 and 2022 elections. “It’s pretty clear,” says Griswold, “I’ve had to address situations that no other secretary of state had to at the time.”
Griswold, who grew up in Estes Park and attended the Carey Law School at the University of Pennsylvania, did have some experience with election work before running for secretary of state: She served as a voter protection attorney in Colorado for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. Still, after completing Emerge Colorado, a program that recruits and trains Democratic women who want to run for office, in 2017, her decision to seek the role was considered bold. “For someone who has never held elected office before to run for statewide office—that takes a huge leap of faith,” says Laurie Simonson, who went through Emerge with Griswold and currently serves as Leadville’s city administrator.
Griswold’s ambition has continued to be a topic of conversation—and consternation—during her time in office. While a variety of never-before-seen factors have propelled her into the spotlight, political observers believe she has sought attention to benefit her own goals. “She sees her position as a springboard to higher office,” Eric Sondermann wrote in Colorado Politics this past January. “Her press releases are non-stop. She has a nose for divisive, polarizing issues and eagerly seizes upon them.”
In 2019, for example, Griswold decided to no longer authorize the use of state money to fund travel to Alabama after the state’s governor signed a law effectively banning all abortions. Griswold had Planned Parenthood vet the news release announcing the boycott—a decision she defended by arguing that it’s appropriate to consult experts in the field. “She used her office to make her opinion known, instead of just saying it as an individual,” says Fremont County clerk and recorder Justin Grantham, a Republican who is also president-elect of the Colorado County Clerks Association. “It just feels like the office has taken on some political avenues that have nothing to do with elections or business or keeping records.”
Williams, Griswold’s predecessor, agrees with Grantham’s assessment of Griswold’s 2019 announcement regarding Alabama and suggests that secretaries of state should be wary of wading into political fights, given that they hold the keys to election administration. “When I became secretary of state, I scaled back my involvement on the partisan side significantly,” says Williams, who notes he had previously served as the El Paso County co-chairman for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. “I think it is part of what people expect a secretary of state to do.”
Denver County clerk and recorder Paul López, on the other hand, says there needs to be more nuance involved with how election officials can express their views. “Being political and chiming in on issues is a little different from directly supporting issues or candidates that are on the ballot,” says the Democrat. “Are you trying to directly influence things people are voting on in the election? Then there might be an issue.”
Griswold is unapologetic for how she has defended Colorado elections, even after receiving a cavalcade of death threats from election deniers. “When the right to vote is imperiled, we should say that,” she explains. And she says she doesn’t regret taking stances on other issues, such as abortion. “I think it’s important that elected officials speak out for our freedoms,” she says. “There aren’t enough women in office. I think 72 percent of Congress right now is male. They aren’t speaking out.”
Griswold adds that she believes her age and gender shape the criticism of her. “I am the first Democratic woman to hold this position and the 10th woman to ever win statewide executive constitutional office since we were a territory,” she says. “That means my style is going to be different. How I communicate is going to be different. How I look is going to be different.” The voters of Colorado will cast their ballots on whether they like those differences this fall.