This week, Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams finally roared.
What set him off? Not claims of a rigged election. Not the signatures of dead voters on petitions for Senate candidates, or the lawsuits from county clerks over voting systems. Not even Republican candidates, members of his own party, suing him because they wanted to be included on the U.S. Senate primary ballot.
Williams dealt with all of those issues this year in his characteristic “let’s all just get along” fashion.
No, what finally did it were the actions of two Democratic members of the Electoral College. The electors, known either as “faithless” electors or “Hamilton” electors, depending upon where you come down on the matter, filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging a Colorado law that requires them to vote for the state winner of the Nov. 8 presidential contest. The pair are seeking to thwart Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House by casting their electoral ballots not for Hillary Clinton, who won Colorado, but some yet-undecided Republican other than Trump. They are trying to persuade electors in other states to do that same.
The two named Williams as one of the three defendants in the lawsuit.
“The very notion of two Colorado electors ignoring Colorado’s popular vote in an effort to sell their vote to electors in other states is odious to everything we hold dear about the right to vote,” Williams said in a statement Tuesday. “It is this type of evil that President Franklin Roosevelt warned us about when he cautioned that voters – not elected officials such as these faithless electors – are ‘the ultimate rulers of our democracy.’”
Williams said the two Democratic electors, former state Sen. Polly Baca of Denver and math teacher Bob Nemanich of Colorado Springs, were “without honor.”
It’s been a helluva first presidential election for Williams, who has turned out to be the Secretary of State few expected. A conservative from conservative-as-can-be El Paso County, Williams has managed a blend of pragmatism and affability that got him through a presidential election — the results of which he will certify today — with as many potential land mines as there are counties in Colorado.
- Seventeen counties were trying out a brand-new voting system for the first time, including always-troublesome Adams, Pueblo and Mesa counties.
- A crash in the Secretary of State’s voter registration system shut down online registration for 27 minutes.
- In Pueblo, the voting system briefly crashed on Election Day because the county had purchased software for the new voting system that was intended for use in much smaller municipalities. County officials had to scramble to upgrade it so that ballots could still be processed.
- The Republican presidential nominee, now President-elect Donald Trump, called Colorado’s caucus system rigged in April, and then kept saying that if he lost it would be because the nation’s election system is rigged. After the election, with the Green Party’s Jill Stein initiating recounts, the victorious Trump declared without evidence that millions of illegal voters cast ballots, presumably for his Democratic opponent. That put Republican Secretaries of State around the nation, including Williams, on the defensive.
“Ensuring integrity of our election is paramount,” Williams told The Colorado Independent after one of Trump’s rigged-election system allegations in October. Protection of the system includes 24-hour surveillance at the ballot boxes where people could drop off their ballots, and making sure a pair of bipartisan judges picked up the ballots, he said. Yes, those things cost money, but it makes for a safer process, he said.
Williams was elected Secretary of State in 2014, winning more votes than any of his predecessors, along with endorsements from two Democratic mayors in El Paso County. Williams is the first Secretary of State to come out of county government, and according to supporters and even his detractors, it shows. In a good way.
Williams’ experience prepared him to work with people with whom he doesn’t always agree, and that has has carried him through his first two years as Secretary of State, he told The Independent.
Twenty years in local government is the secret of his success, Williams said. Prior to becoming Secretary of State, Williams was El Paso County’s clerk and recorder, and worked for eight years before that as a county commissioner. “Being an elected official is much different than being an attorney,” Williams said, a nod to his previous work life as a labor and employment attorney.
Williams has been quite successful in getting along with Democrats at the Capitol, and his track record in 2016 proves it. Eight of the 11 bills he brought to the General Assembly passed — no small feat in an election year in which both political parties try to score points on the other. Four of the eight successful bills dealt with election laws, such as requiring those who conduct voter registration drives to meet training requirements, and creating a tiered system for small issue committees, such as those set up for school bond elections. The committees would have to register with the Secretary of State once they have raised $200, and to disclose donors once the committee raises $5,000.
Williams told The Independent that he made sure the bills he brought to the Capitol had bipartisan support, and he looked for places where Democrats and Republican lawmakers could work together. Six of the eight bills that made it to the governor’s desk had bipartisan sponsors, including the two bills listed above.
Elena Nuñez is the head of Colorado Common Cause, which advocates for accountable government. Between 2011 and 2014, Nuñez sparred with Williams’ predecessor, Scott Gessler, including successfully suing the Secretary of State for rewriting election rules he didn’t like.
With Williams, “it has been like night and day compared to the previous administration,” Nuñez told The Independent in an email. “Williams and his team have demonstrated a strong commitment to working collaboratively. That’s not to say we don’t still have policy disagreements, we do. But it doesn’t stop us from working together to find common ground where we can.”
Common Cause and Williams have worked together to advance bipartisan legislation on election reform and campaign finance transparency, she noted. That included the tiered issue committee bill, for which Common Cause had sued Gessler after he tried to raise donation disclosure limits.
Where Gessler was combative with lawmakers and government accountability advocates (he didn’t earn the nickname “Honey Badger” for nothing), Williams has used his years of local government experience and a gentler way of doing things to move his agenda through the legislature.
Pam Anderson, former Jefferson County clerk and recorder who now heads the state’s clerks association, said Williams has reached out to county clerks in a way that they have welcomed: He goes to see them. In his first two years in office, Williams has been constantly on the road, set upon visiting every one of Colorado’s 64 county clerks in their workplaces. He finished all but one of those visits before Election Day, and he made it to the last county, Moffat, just after the election.
Williams, Anderson said, is willing to work with the counties and to understand their opportunities, constraints and challenges. She says his background in county government has made Williams pragmatic. That’s important with a clerks’ association that serves counties ranging from San Juan, in the San Luis Valley, with 700 residents, to Denver, with its 682,000 residents.
“Wayne has represented that [pragmatic] perspective at the legislature,” Anderson said. “We find commonalities where we can agree, but there’s room for those places when we disagree. We work together far more than we’ve worked at cross-purposes.”
Williams is not without his detractors. Several Republican county clerks are suing him over the new voting system. Updating the county voting systems has been one of Williams’ biggest chores since taking office. Due to changes in technology as well as equipment wear and tear, voting systems have a shelf-life of little more than a decade.
The process of looking for a new voting system, which began under Gessler, was completed about a year ago. Colorado counties have been using four different systems for more than a decade, paid for by the federal government in the wake of the problems in the 2000 election. When the time came to update the systems, a bipartisan panel selected Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems. That has earned Williams criticism from vendors who didn’t make the cut and a lawsuit from county clerks who wanted to continue to use their current systems.
One of the clerks suing Williams is Republican Merlin Klotz of Douglas County, who believes Williams did not have the authority to mandate what vendor a county could use. Klotz also believes the Dominion system is inadequate and that one voting system might not fit every county.
“Sometimes you have to disagree with your friends,” Klotz told The Independent.
“I did not mandate a single voting systems vendor,” Williams responded. Instead, he said, he came up with a set of standards that Colorado voting systems must meet. “Dominion currently meets the standards I set, and other vendors are working diligently to meet them as well. ” And while “Merlin has challenged me at every step of the process, the Attorney General, the General Assembly and a U.S. District Court have all upheld my authority to set the standards,” Williams said.
Then there’s campaign finance watchdog, Matt Arnold, a critic who says Williams has illegally interfered with campaign finance cases that involve his political friends and contributors.
Arnold said despite the flack Gessler took, he was fair and equitable in his application of the law. “I would assert that Wayne Williams has failed in his duties as secretary of state to diligently prosecute and uphold the law,” he said.
Arnold pointed to a case he filed against an independent expenditure committee (IEC) operated by the Colorado Republican Party. The IEC, Arnold claimed, was a “slush fund for the party to evade contribution limits and disclosure.”
Williams intervened in that complaint to “protect his political allies and campaign contributors,” Arnold alleged. The Secretary of State’s job is to administer the complaints and collect fines, yet Arnold claims Williams has refused to collect fines from some of the committees penalized for campaign finance violations. Arnold noted one of those committees, the Alliance for a Safe and Independent Woodmen Hills, has still not paid a fine levied in 2014. That committee was operated by Sen.-elect Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs. The fine, as of February of this year, was at $9,700.
Arnold said that the secretary of state must send any outstanding debt to the state controller for collection, but two years later that still hasn’t happened. “Fines aren’t negotiable,” he said.
Williams’ office responded that they cannot collect from an issue committee that has no assets, and cannot attach those fines to the registered agent (in this case, Gardner). “There is no person or asset to collect from,” according to staff.
“I supported Williams in his run for secretary of state, believing he would fairly and evenly enforce the law. I’ve been massively disappointed,”Arnold added.
Williams acknowledged that he has intervened at the trial level on campaign finance complaints, as did his predecessor. “As secretary, I will occasionally elect to intervene in campaign finance complaints at the trial level in order to preserve a right to appeal should the case be wrongly decided. I make this decision without any regard to who the parties are in a particular complaint.” That intervention, according to staff, takes the form of filing a motion with the court outlining the Secretary of State’s interest in a case, and asking the court to allow the Secretary of State to be a party to the case. This happens when a case may impact the application of election law statewide, the staff said.
Williams also pointed out that Arnold and his Campaign Integrity Watchdog organization have filed 80 percent of the campaign finance complaints handled by his office. “He probably feels unfairly targeted,” Williams said. “But in truth, it is Arnold himself who targets his political opponents. To be sure, I’ve intervened in cases at both the trial and appellate level in which Matt Arnold wasn’t a party and I’ve intervened on his behalf” on several cases in the past few years.
So why did Williams explode on Tuesday? After a year of defending the state’s voting laws and the integrity of the electorate, the electors’ lawsuit was akin to a battle call.
The two faithless electors, he said, “have arrogantly thumbed their noses at Colorado’s voters and have announced their intent to violate Colorado law.”
Williams has filed to run for reelection in 2018, but he is regularly approached (and mentioned) as a candidate for governor, a position Republicans have held only once (Bill Owens, from 1999 to 2007) since 1975.
Leave it to the Democratic political blog Colorado Pols to show just how well Williams is regarded by those outside his party. Twice in the space of 30 days, the blog called Williams “the voice of reason” for being one of the few Republicans to stand up against Trump’s claims of rigged elections.
Photos courtesy of the office of Secretary of State.