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Is Colorado’s elections chief too political? Jena Griswold fights criticism of Trump-focused partisanship.

It is no secret that Jena Griswold, Colorado’s secretary of state since 2019, has a major problem with former President Donald Trump.

A quick scroll through her account on X, formerly known as Twitter, reveals dozens of condemnations of the former president, with Griswold repeatedly calling him an “oath-breaking insurrectionist” and a “threat to democracy.”

“It is up to American voters to save our country next November and vote for democracy over chaos,” she posted on Nov. 30.

Those sentiments find broad support in Colorado politics, which largely has been hostile to Trump. But the outspokenness of the Democratic secretary of state — both on social media and in numerous interviews on cable news — doesn’t play well with those who expect a more even-handed approach from Colorado’s top election official, especially in a year when Trump is on the ballot again for president.

Griswold’s social media posts generate plenty of pushback, and lately Colorado Republicans have gone after her more aggressively, including by launching a doomed impeachment bid. They also have criticized her decision to support an attempt to remove Trump from the ballot in a Colorado case the U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned.

Wayne Williams, a Republican who preceded Griswold as secretary of state and lost to her in the 2018 election, says there is no question his 39-year-old successor loudly and boldly wears her liberal politics on her sleeve. She regularly expresses support for abortion rights, gun control legislation and transgender rights in her official capacity as secretary of state.

Griswold also has lambasted U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, as an election denier. Williams understands why some voters might be uncomfortable with that.

“It makes it very difficult for people to believe everything’s fair when you are on a full-out attack on candidates they support,” he said. “I believe her partisan actions undermine the confidence of voters’ faith in the office.”

But Griswold said in an interview that her vocal criticism of Trump was intrinsically linked to her duty to defend the integrity of Colorado’s elections.

“Will I become quiet? The answer is absolutely not,” she said. “We are in an unprecedented and dangerous political climate. It is not partisan or political to protect our democracy.”

Threats against Griswold

The most fervent criticism from Colorado Republicans has come since the U.S. Supreme Court early this month overruled the Colorado high court’s December decision to strike Trump from the Republican primary ballot. Griswold wasn’t among the plaintiffs in the case, but she’d filed a brief in support.

On March 4, Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert threatened to pursue a recall campaign against Griswold. Days later, state House Republicans announced an effort to impeach the secretary of state — though it isn’t expected to gain traction, and may not even get a hearing, in the Democratic-supermajority chamber.

Then, on March 14, the Colorado Republican Party filed a complaint with the Colorado Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, asking it to investigate Griswold for repeatedly calling Trump an insurrectionist when the former president had neither been charged nor convicted of such an offense.

“She has repeatedly lied to and misled the public,” the complainants said in an email issued by the state GOP.

Griswold is unfazed by the criticism.

Two Colorado courts — a Denver district judge in November and the Colorado Supreme Court the following month — determined Trump had engaged in insurrection around the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, she noted.

Griswold said she had received more than 800 threats, including death threats, since a group of Republican and unaffiliated Colorado voters filed the ballot challenge lawsuit in September.

“I will not be silenced by Republicans in our legislature trying to score cheap political points — and I’ll never be intimidated by someone like Lauren Boebert,” she said. “I will not allow the extreme right to define standing up for democracy as not doing one’s job — it’s what every single person should be doing.”

Enabling or giving cover to those making false claims about the integrity of an election, she said, is “undemocratic, un-American and unacceptable.”

Griswold has defenders in Colorado. Amanda Gonzalez, Jefferson County’s clerk and recorder and a fellow Democrat, said she admires Griswold’s fiery dedication to shielding elections from those falsely claiming they are rigged or fraudulent.

She sees the role of a state’s top election official these days as being the “democracy-defender-in-chief.”

“She isn’t the first secretary of state to speak about the damage caused by President Trump,” Gonzalez said. “I appreciate a secretary of state who stands up to that and ensures that our system is safe and secure.”

Partisan roots in election oversight

The criticism of Griswold underlines the sometimes-partisan nature of election oversight, which most notably caught the public’s attention during the 2000 Bush v. Gore debacle. Then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican who also served as George W. Bush’s state campaign co-chair, was accused of playing favorites after she certified the state’s razor-thin results for Bush over Al Gore.

Trump’s election loss 20 years later put the office into hyper-focus, highlighted by an early January 2021 phone call made by the then-president to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Trump, who was recorded, suggested that the Republican elections chief “find” more than 11,000 votes to ensure a Trump victory in the state won by Democrat Joe Biden.

“The secretary of state used to be a backwater — now it’s high profile,” said Kevin Johnson, executive director of the Bethesda, Maryland-based Election Reformers Network.

A big part of the problem rests with how election administration is run in the United States, Johnson said.

“They manage a process that is adversarial in nature and they need to be impartial in overseeing that process,” he said of election officials. “Voters want to see neutrality in the comportment of the leader of elections.”

Colorado is one of 31 states where the secretary of state is chosen in a statewide election. In another seven states, the governor or legislature appoints the secretary. In 10 states, a board of elections, rather than a secretary of state, oversees elections, while in Utah and Alaska, the lieutenant governor is the chief elections officer.

Johnson’s organization has sketched out a way to reduce, if not eliminate, partisanship from election administration by forming a bipartisan state election board that includes members with legal and election expertise.

“Our elections officials are elected in partisan elections — no other democratic country in the world does that,” Johnson said. “The reason no other country does that is it leads to conflicts of interest.”

In a poll conducted by the American Politics Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, released in January, just 52% of Coloradans surveyed thought elections across the country would be run “fairly and accurately” in 2024. The numbers improved when respondents were asked about the state’s upcoming elections — 68% felt they would be fair and accurate.

But there was a stark partisan split, with 88% of Democrats saying Colorado’s elections would be run fairly and 63% of independents saying so. Only 54% of Republicans felt that way.

CU political science professor Anand Edward Sokhey, who oversaw the survey, said he found “the partisan gaps on electoral confidence concerning.” But tracing the exact causes of such disparities in sentiment is difficult, he said, if not impossible.

Eyeing higher office?

Former state GOP party chair Dick Wadhams, like Griswold, is no fan of Trump. He also disagrees with Republican attempts to recall or impeach Griswold.

But he has tough words for the secretary of state.

“In many ways, I think she is as irresponsible as the stolen election conspiracy crowd on the Republican side,” Wadhams said. “She should be restoring trust in the process.”

Griswold, he said, is so baldly partisan that she has disrupted the long, staid tradition of secretaries of state in Colorado, where the function of the office largely took precedence over who was leading it.

Not that all her predecessors were quiet bureaucrats. Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler ran into ethics problems and raised Democratic hackles during his tenure a decade ago — even launching an unsuccessful 2014 bid for governor.

But in Wadhams’ view, Gessler was a “rank amateur compared to Jena Griswold” in terms of partisanship. He surmises that a desire for higher office could be behind Griswold’s approach.

Asked if she had future political ambitions, Griswold said she was “locked in and focused on this election cycle.”

Gonzalez, the Jeffco clerk, said Griswold brought substantial improvements to Colorado’s election system, such as expanding access to voting for eligible voters — with more drop boxes and voting centers, heightened security and a statewide ballot-tracking system.

“I ran for this office because I wanted to protect the right to vote,” Gonzalez said.

Griswold, she said, also has been front and center when it comes to extending protections to county clerks who had come under fire during the tumultuous aftermath of the 2020 election. She championed a bill two years ago that made it a crime to threaten election officials or publish their personal information online.

Griswold said she wouldn’t back down in the face of criticism, noting that she was reelected by voters by a comfortable margin in 2022. She will be term-limited in 2026.

“We are only here because Donald Trump lost the election in 2020. He refused to accept the result and tried to steal the election from the American people,” she said. “There’s no mistaking what he did — we all watched it unfold on Jan. 6. And I can’t be silent when the future of our democracy is at stake.”

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