The position of secretary of state isn’t typically a politically charged office, but it’s looking like the race has been caught in the crosshairs of this year’s November midterm elections.
Democratic challenger Jena Griswold, who visited Durango on Friday, hopes to unseat incumbent Wayne Williams, a Republican, to become the first Democrat secretary of state in nearly six decades.
The secretary assumes many duties, such as registering businesses, lobbyists and charities. But the biggest responsibility is leading Colorado’s elections.
Griswold, an attorney who lives in Louisville, said while the position’s focus is on the state of Colorado, it is not immune to the pressures of national politics and the Trump administration.
Specifically, throughout her campaign, Griswold has criticized Williams’ decision last summer to send Colorado’s voter data to Trump’s now-disbanded voter-fraud commission, which was tied to the president’s allegations of widespread fraud in the 2016 election.
As a result, thousands of Colorado voters withdrew their registration, with estimates ranging from 3,000 to 8,000 voters. Though Colorado did send voter data to the commission, it did not include confidential information, despite the White House’s request to do so.
Williams has defended his decision, saying the information that was sent was already public. And although he complied with Trump’s request, Williams has disagreed with the president’s assertion there were millions of instances of voter fraud.
“He (Williams) did not provide anything that was not publicly available to anyone who made such a request,” said Ryan Lynch, a consultant for Williams’ campaign.
Griswold, however, saw the act as a threat to Colorado voters’ security and denounced Williams for buckling to Trump’s request, which she called unlawful.
“We need to be very careful with voting rights,” Griswold said. “He (Williams) took a different approach and sent the data, and thousands of people withdrew their voter registration.”
This is Griswold’s first foray into election politics.
The Estes Park native has worked as a voting rights attorney for former President Barack Obama’s campaign and as a Washington, D.C., liaison for Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Griswold, 33, said if elected, she wants to make sure the state has the “most secure and accessible elections in the nation.”
Among other goals Griswold has her sights on, she wants to expand programs to get more people signed up to vote, such as automatic voter registration; tighten regulations on campaign finance disclosures; and proactively enforce erroneous filings.
She would also like the secretary of state’s office to offer a small-business and entrepreneur center where people starting a company can get all the paperwork and information they need in one place.
“I think the secretary of state needs to be more proactive,” she said.
Williams, 55, was first elected in 2014. He had previously served as El Paso County’s clerk and recorder, and before that, as a county commissioner.
Under his tenure during the 2016 presidential election, Colorado’s voter data was not compromised when Russian hackers went after 21 states, Colorado included. Breaches were reported in only two states, Arizona and Illinois.
Williams is credited with getting more residents signed up to vote after implementing automatic voter registration when people receive or renew a driver’s license.
“The secretary’s job is to run fair elections, and work with the county clerks to provide them the necessary resources and information they need,” Lynch said. “If Jena wants to hyper-politicize this position, she can, but the reality is that Secretary Williams has run a high-functioning office that upholds the law and provides innovative public services to the community.”
Griswold, however, hopes that with the majority of Colorado voters now marginally more Democrat, the polls will tip in her favor.
“People who work at the (office) are really good, but I do get concerned about some of the decision making at the very top,” she said. “When things come from the outside affecting us, of course, we have to pay attention.”