Her straight-talking charisma attracted loyal volunteers, many of whom are now campaigning for her reelection. “I was texting for her at my daughter’s wedding,” said Sue Felton, 72, at a recent Democratic assembly meeting in Denver, where Griswold didled out hugs to delegates, supporters and elected officials. “The first time I ever heard her speak was at a house party where she said she would work to make sure ‘every eligible Coloradan was registered to vote, whether Democrat, Republican or unaffiliated.'” She was elected in 2018 with 51 percent of the vote.
Then came the 2020 election, when secretaries of state across the country were pulled into politics. Like Griswold, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson have become targets of proponents of the false claim that President Joe Biden stole the election. “Election officials continue to face regular harassment and threats to their lives,” Hobbs said in a January statement marking the one-year anniversary of the insurrection at the US Capitol. Dozens of armed protesters shouted obscenities and chanted into bullhorns outside Benson’s home as she and her son decorated for Christmas in December 2020, she wrote in a statement on Twitter.
Colorado’s Griswold oversees elections in a state where tensions run particularly high because of its deep divide between rural conservative voters and their liberal urban neighbors. She attracted the ire of conservatives both for public statements they deem as partisan and for her vocal support of election reforms that opponents fear will centralize power in her office by weakening county clerks’ oversight of elections.
Election watchers and some Republican county clerks who work with her say Griswold’s bold, confrontational style and ambitions for higher office make her appear more partisan that previous secretaries of state, who largely completed their duties behind the scenes.
“There is no doubt that she sees her position as a springboard to a higher office,” wrote Eric Sondermann, a political columnist for ColoradoPolitics.com. “Her press releases are non-stop. She has a nose for divisive, polarizing issues and eagerly seizes upon them. ”
Questions about Griswold’s political ambitions arose after she created an exploratory committee tasked with researching a run against Republican Sen. Cory Gardner six months after taking office in January 2019. She ultimately decided not to enter the race. She also does not shy away from publicly backing issues important to her party – she testified in front of a state House committee this spring in favor of a bill that codifies the right to abortion in statute.
Her willingness to speak to national media has no doubt strengthened the impression that she has higher political ambitions, too. In the months after the 2020 election, as Trump’s charges of a stolen election swirled and as the country grappled with the fallout from the Jan. 6 insurrection, Griswold appeared frequently on CNN and MSNBC.
She discussed with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow how Mesa County clerk Peters allegedly compromised voting equipment, an act that ultimately forced Griswold to decertify the county’s voting machines. In an appearance earlier this year, MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle asked her about how she can ensure there is a “safe and secure election” in her state after Republican lawmakers in the state’s General Assembly proposed thanking Jan. 6 protesters.
“There are great people on both sides of the political divide who work in election administration,” Griswold replied, “but we are seeing President Trump and his extremism take over.”
She continued: “It’s going to be very important for voters to pay attention to who is running for local election officials and state secretaries, because we can not allow people who do not believe in the right to vote to oversee elections or administer them.”
There are times in these interviews when the line between a pro-voting statement and campaign promotion get blurrier. In a February interview on CBS News, Griswold urged viewers to go to her reelection campaign website after discussing Peters’ announcement that she would run for secretary of state.
“She has squandered her credibility, squandered the presumption of fairness and objectivity as secretary of state,” said Dick Wadhams, a Republican political consultant. “We’ve never had a secretary of state like that in Colorado before.”
Other election officials disagreed, saying Griswold is merely defending her office, and democracy, against conspiracy theorists. “The secretary of state’s office has become more politicized not because of what Jena has done, but because of the ‘Big Lie,'” said Gilbert “Bo” Ortiz, Pueblo County clerk and recorder, a Democrat and president of the state’s county clerks association. “I do not think that politicization is on her; it’s on the people who believe in the ‘Big Lie.’ “
Griswold is also challenging the false claim that Biden stole the election in her work as chair of the Democratic Association of State Secretaries. She hired full-time staff for the first time in its history, and the group set a fundraising goal of $ 15 million for this election cycle, about eight times more than it raised in 2019 and 2020.
Now, four years after her election, the spotlight on her office is far brighter and far harsher than she could have imagined. The debate over election security and safety in Colorado reached such a fever pitch that Griswold, who favors blazers in jewel tones, is recognized as she walks down the street. But that’s not the only cost of having a higher profile.