Voter access and election security take center stage in Colorado’s secretary of state race

U.S. partisan divide is rippling through the campaigns

Democratic challenger Jena Griswold and Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams at a candidate forum in Denver on Oct. 16. (Photos by Evan Semón and Rachel Lorenz for The Colorado Independent)

The secretary of state race typically is not one that sets partisan tempers aflame. But in this year’s polarized political environment, those sentiments are trickling down-ballot as President Trump and national concerns over foreign election interference ripple through the campaigns for Colorado’s chief elections officer.

This year’s race pits Republican incumbent Wayne Williams, a former El Paso County commissioner and clerk and recorder, against Jena Griswold, the Democratic challenger and a former voting rights attorney in the Obama administration.

Williams says his pragmatic, results-driven leadership style has earned him bipartisan praise and helped make Colorado elections among the best-run in the nation. Griswold says Williams has failed voters in two main areas: He turned over Colorado voter data to President Trump’s controversial voter fraud panel, when in her opinion, he shouldn’t have — and he hasn’t done enough to protect our elections from foreign cyber-interference.

Given the state’s consistently high national rankings in election security and voter access, Griswold’s path to victory is steep. Nonetheless, the upstart Democrat hopes that a national anti-Trump sentiment and a fresh set of ideas — particularly on campaign finance — will help carry her over the finish line.

Both candidates have had their brushes with local controversy. Williams, 55, has faced scrutiny for moonlighting at his private law practice, representing private citizens before state bodies and not disclosing his clients’ identities. And Griswold, 34, repeatedly had to answer questions about why she did not vote in 2006 and 2014.

Below, five big issues facing the office of secretary of state — and where the candidates stand on them:

ACCESS TO VOTING

Both candidates say promoting access to voting is chief among the office’s duties.

A new study, “The Cost of Voting in the American States,” ranks Colorado among states that make it easiest to vote, a finding consistent with praise for how the state’s elections are being run. In 2016, for example, Colorado boasted the highest percentage of registered voters — 87 percent — and crushed the nationwide average of eligible voters casting ballots. While turnout nationwide was 58.2 percent in 2016, 71.3 percent of Coloradans voted in that election.

Williams, who was elected secretary of state in 2014, says his office has worked hard to make it easier for people to register and vote. He points to the automatic voter registration system he established, which updates a person’s existing voter registration when that person gets a new driver’s license or updates his or her information at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The system automatically gives a not-yet-registered voter the option to do so.

Williams’s office designed the system and spearheaded the effort to win legislative approval during the 2018 General Assembly. The Republican also established the option of registering via text message (click here to register or view/update your information). Two other initiatives Williams touts: He started a program that recognizes high school students who persuade 85 percent of their graduating class to register to vote, and he issued a rule for the 64 sheriffs in the state to work with county clerks to facilitate voting in jail — an initiative designed to make sure that those awaiting trial can still cast ballots. In Colorado, convicted felons and those serving parole are not eligible to vote.

But election analysts also attribute Colorado’s ease of voting to the state’s same-day voter registration and the universal mail-in ballot — both of which were passed by the Colorado General Assembly in 2013, despite Williams’s vocal opposition at the time. While the verdict is still out if mail-in ballots actually increase participation, experts agree that at the very least such a practice makes it easier to participate. Since being elected, Williams says he has adopted these standards and says his office paid for 24/7 drop-off locations for the mailed ballots. As recently as July 2017, Williams reaffirmed his reservations about the all-mail ballot, writing: “Historically, voting took place only in pristine polling locations in which voters were protected from intimidation or disenfranchisement. As individuals move to voting from home and other locations, we need to examine how to protect the secret ballot and how to protect voters from inappropriate attempts to influence their votes or to disclose their votes to others.”

As for same-day registration and in-person voting, Williams defends the current policy of requiring valid photo ID to prevent fraud.

“A utility bill is not identification,” he says. Rather, Williams says his office has broadened the definition of a valid ID to include Native American tribal IDs and photo IDs issued to U.S. military veterans. If coming up with proper identification is a problem, Williams says, “just register ahead of time — which is pretty much what the standard is in most other states.”

Griswold says legislators, not Williams, deserve most of the credit for expanding the vote in Colorado. “The legislature has been really forward-thinking in Colorado,” she says. She believes Williams should make voting more accessible to more groups, including college students.

She added she wants to extend the automatic voter registration practices already in place to college campuses and other locations where people interact with the state, outside the DMV, such as public assistance and disability offices and the Department of Revenue.

Griswold also routinely points out that Colorado’s voter registration system crashed repeatedly on past Election Days, including under Williams’s watch in 2016, causing hours-long delays and lines. In that election, only 7 percent of Coloradans voted in person, while a whopping 93 percent made use of their mail-in ballot and drop-off boxes.

“We have some of the best IT minds in the nation here in Colorado, both in the private sector and in the public sector,” Griswold says. “I believe that we can make that voter registration system work for 12 hours on Election Day.”

Williams told The Indy that if re-elected to office, he plans to update the whole integrated election system, which includes fixing said glitches in the statewide voter registration database — a $2 million project already approved by the General Assembly, the secretary says.

ELECTION SECURITY

Colorado is the safest state in the nation to vote, the Washington Post recently found.

But ever since the Russian interference campaign during the 2016 presidential election, which included hacking attempts of state election systems and a sophisticated social media campaign to spread false information and undermine trust in the electoral process, the issue of ballot security has been front and center in the public debate — and for secretaries of state across the country, including in Colorado.

While Griswold admits the state has come a long way in protecting the vote, she says her opponent should have taken greater advantage of federal resources to further secure Colorado’s systems.

A recent NPR/Marist poll confirms the public’s fear of election meddling. One in three Americans believes a foreign country will change votes in the upcoming midterms.

“That is not a fringe group — that is a third,” Williams says. “That is why we have been very aggressive to tell people what we do here in Colorado and the processes I have adopted.”

To him, securing the election occurs in three places:

  1. The voting and tabulation process. Thanks to a voter-verifiable paper ballot and the nation’s first risk-limiting audit — in which a sample of ballots is counted by hand and is then compared to machine tallies — there is no connection to the internet in counting and logging Colorado votes. No voting or vote tabulation occurs online, so no hacking can take place, Williams says. “We can tell you with absolute certainty here in Colorado that nobody in Moscow, nobody in Beijing, changes a single vote,” he says.
  1.  The voter registration platform. It is online, but Williams says there are “precautions in place.” Every registration is personally approved by a government employee in a county clerk’s office, and that person needs not only a username and password, but also an additional method of identification for extra security, Williams says.  “This is where we know Russian malign actors tried to enter our voter database,” he says. “We blocked them. Every state didn’t.”
  1.  Social media posts. The secretary says he has been on a number of conference calls with executives from Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft to learn about efforts to weed out bad actors, and that his office has used federal cyber-security funds to enhance its monitoring of social media platforms and the dark web.

“As secretary of state, it is not my job to regulate what you post,” Williams says. “But it is my job to respond if someone says something on Facebook that is not accurate, or if someone sends out information that is not accurate.“

Williams says social media recently spread false reports that Oct. 29 was the deadline to register to vote in Colorado — in fact, registration continues up to and including Election Day. He says his office and its communications director, Lynn Bartels, jumped on Twitter immediately and repeatedly corrected the misinformation.

The liberal Center for American Progress gave Colorado a B for its election security, marking down the state for allowing certain military personnel to vote via encrypted email.

Griswold took a swipe: “B is good enough in chemistry but not for our state’s cyber-security,” she says. To which Williams responded: “Well, there is no mail delivery on a submarine.”  

Griswold also pointed out that in January 2017, Williams opposed a Department of Homeland Security classification of state election systems as “critical infrastructure” because he and other secretaries of state feared the designation would give the federal government too much control over state elections.

Griswold says Williams’s opposition was partisan-based and that he risked leaving tied-in federal funding on the table to help Colorado fight cyber-election fraud — money that Williams has been using since.

“When those resources are offered, my initial reaction is: Yes, we are a swing state — we want all the federal resources we can get,” Griswold says. “Trust me, I will work with Congress on a bipartisan measure to fund election cyber-security. These should not be partisan issues.”

Williams in 2017 also sent a letter to then-DHS secretary and now-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, voicing his displeasure that the agency failed to inform secretaries of state about identified vulnerabilities in local jurisdictions during the 2016 election.

An as example of how Griswold believes Williams has been less than vigilant in security matters, she cited a series of recent DHS cyber-security exercises intended to expose systemic shortcomings. In one of the exercises, county clerks were targeted with phishing emails designated to access voting records. Several clerks across Colorado clicked on the malicious links. After the exercise was completed, however, DHS Secretary Kristjen Nielsen praised Colorado as a national leader in safeguarding elections.

GIVING DATA TO THE PRESIDENTIAL VOTER FRAUD COMMISSION

In the aftermath of his 2016 electoral college victory over Hillary Clinton, President Trump repeatedly made the baseless claim that millions of voters had fraudulently cast a ballot for Clinton, who, in fact, won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes. Subsequently, the president formed the “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity,” co-chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has faced a long list of complaints of disenfranchising voters in his home state. The commission proceeded to request voter data from all secretaries of state, including last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers. Critics immediately cried foul and said the commission was a thinly veiled voter suppression effort. The commission was dissolved a year later without finding evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Before it disbanded, Williams turned over some Colorado voter information to the commission, but he excluded Social Security numbers and specific birthday information, which by state law are not public information. In a letter to Kobach, Williams told him the commission’s approach was flawed from the get-go.

As Williams and others pointed out, Williams did not violate anyone’s privacy.

“The information that the Trump administration was seeking was for the most part entirely public information,” says University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket. “In many ways it was more of a symbolic request: Are you signaling that you are on my side or not?”

Nonetheless, Williams’s action led to more than 3,000 Coloradans withdrawing their voter registrations, some in protest and some out of fear their data would be shared with President Trump. Reporting by The Colorado Independent in the weeks and months after has shown that many of those voters did not immediately re-register after the information was shared.

Griswold joined the critics. “Federal law requires that there is a reasonable basis for the federal collection of data,” she says. “The commission arguably didn’t prove that reasonable basis.”

The Democrat says she would have waited to provide the requested data until the courts had decided that question.

Political analyst Masket says the naming of the voter fraud commission and the response to it has potentially damaging effects in the long run.

“There is always the danger that voters will perceive the secretary of state office as biased, that it will give advantages to a party,” he says. “If voters start to generally believe that they are not going to get a fair shake from the electoral system, that is potentially very corrosive to democracy.”

CAMPAIGN FINANCE

As Coloradans make their decisions about candidates and ballot measures this fall, campaign finance regulations have gotten a renewed focus — not only because of the tens of millions of dollars outside groups spent on two measures affecting the oil and gas industry here.

Colorado voters this year also get to decide on Amendment 75, which aims to close the “millionaire loophole” by allowing candidates to accept larger direct contributions. The measure is an effort to level the playing field for candidates who run against someone who can pour millions of his or her own dollars into their campaign.

Both Griswold and Williams support the measure.

Beyond that, Griswold also supports a range of tighter campaign finance regulations — an area she says significantly influenced her decision to run for secretary of state in the first place.

The Democrat says she wants to focus on auditing campaign finance report filings.

“I plan to get eyes on the filings so that we are auditing and then really enforcing current law so that we are making sure special interests and those knowingly trying to thwart our laws are held accountable,” Griswold says.

A federal judge in June struck down part of Colorado’s existing campaign finance procedures that center around a citizen’s ability to file a complaint about a campaign finance violation — which forced Williams to put into place new temporary review rules. Now, such a complaint would go through the secretary of state’s office before going to court. Williams has vowed to work with the legislature in 2019 to address the issue more permanently then.

In addition to enforcing current law, Griswold would like to expand disclosure requirements on campaign finance filings, requiring political action committees and other expenditure groups to report their actual donors. Griswold added that she would also like to see the top three donors listed on all electioneering material, such as flyers and campaign mailers, and says she would work with the General Assembly to achieve some of these goals.

“It’s measures that the state legislature has tried to pass, at least in part, in the past with resistance from our current secretary of state,” Griswold says. “I believe that more transparency is always better, and especially in a democracy, transparency is a necessary check.”

BUSINESS FILINGS

Williams proudly points to the fact that a business owner can now get an immediate — and free — certificate of good standing online. Such a document serves as evidence that a business is complying with all applicable state laws and authorized to conduct affairs.

“That means if you are starting up a business, you can get immediate proof that may give you a loan so you don’t have to wait for us,” Williams says.

He also pointed to the rollout of the one-stop-shop platform, MyBiz.Colorado.Gov, for new business owners, a collaboration with Governor John Hickenlooper’s office.

Griswold says she would continue to work to make information for new small business owners as accessible and understandable as possible — including, for example, which counties also require new business registration.

“What happens is that people don’t know all these steps of compliance because the information is not in one centralized place,” she says. “What I do not believe in is government bureaucracy resulting in fines for new business owners.”

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