Colorado’s secretary of state, Jena Griswold, is warning anyone who will listen that the fate of free and fair elections in the United States hangs in the balance in this November’s midterm contests.
In many of the most competitive races for offices with authority over US elections, Republicans nominated candidates who have embraced or echoed Donald Trump’s myth of a stolen election in 2020.
Griswold, who chairs the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State (Dass) and is running for re-election, is urging Americans to pay attention to the once-sleepy down-ballot contests for secretary of state – lest they lose their democracy.
“What we can expect from the extreme Republicans running across this country is to undermine free and fair elections for the American people, strip Americans of the right to vote, refuse to address security breaches and, unfortunately, be more beholden to Mar-a-Lago than the American people,” Griswold, 37, said in an interview with the Guardian.
She added: “For us, we are trying to save democracy.”
It’s a daunting task, especially in a political environment that has historically favored the party out of power in Washington. But the primary results so far have laid bare the stakes, she said: “The country could lose the right to vote in less than three months.”
Having failed to overturn the 2020 vote, Trump and his loyalists are now strategically targeting positions that will play a critical role in supervising the next presidential election, turning many of the 27 secretary of state contests this year into expensive, partisan showdowns.
If these Trump-backed candidates are elected, Griswold fears that they would weaponize their posts, either by sowing doubts about the results of an election their party loses – or by trying to subvert it outright.
In Arizona, Mark Finchem, a prominent election denier who said he would not have certified Joe Biden’s victory in the state, is now the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Arizona. In Michigan, Kristina Karamo, who baselessly claimed to have witnessed voter fraud as an election observer in 2020, is the Republican party’s choice to be the state’s chief election official. And in Pennsylvania, where the governor appoints the secretary of state, the Republican gubernatorial nominee is Doug Mastriano, a far-right lawmaker who led the brazen attempt to reverse Biden’s victory in his state and chartered buses to the rally that preceded the Capitol riot.
In November, Griswold will face Pam Anderson, a Republican former county clerk who prevailed in her party’s primary over an election conspiracy theorist indicted for tampering with election equipment. Anderson is running on a pledge to keep politics out of elections administration and analysts anticipate a competitive race.
Campaigning across Colorado, Griswold said she sees signs that voters are attuned to the real risks posed by candidates with contempt for the democratic process. On several occasions recently she said voters have broken down in tears over the right to vote.
“The stakes are really high but I also think people understand what’s at stake and that’s why you’re seeing this level of enthusiasm,” Griswold said.
Underscoring the point, she emphasized the association’s growth. Before 2021, Dass had no full-time employees. It now has eight. And the group has already surpassed its fundraising goal for the cycle, amassing $16m so far – more than 10 times what it raised in the 2018 cycle.
“There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm from Democratic donors and the grassroots,” she added. “But, I will say, the Republicans are also seeing a lot of enthusiasm.”
Not long ago, secretaries of state operated in relative obscurity, toiling behind the scenes to complete all manner of bureaucratic duties. Chief among them in most – but not all – states was to ensure the smooth and safe administration of American elections. Many viewed the role as ministerial in nature, far removed from the partisan battles confronting other statewide offices.
That changed in the tumultuous aftermath of the 2020 election. In his brazen attempt to seize a second term, Trump turned his attention to the guardians of state elections: secretaries of state, county clerks, election board members and other officials in battleground states. Falsely claiming the results had been tainted by fraud, he pressured them to reverse his defeat.
The elections officials who stepped forward to resist the defeated president’s fantastical claims and defend the integrity of their elections quickly became the targets of harassment, intimidation and violent threats.
Griswold was among the most prominent voices challenging Trump over his attacks on vote by mail, a fixture of Colorado elections. The confrontations made her a lightning rod on the Maga (Make America Great Again) right. Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, once, incredibly, accused her of murder, an outlandish claim he said was only an “analogy”.
The effect is a near-daily torrent of threats, many violent and eerily “descriptive”.
“It gets to the point where it is really hard to do your job when someone’s telling you over and over how they’re going to hang you,” she said.
Threats of violence are an escalating problem across the spectrum of public life in America: from the White House down to local school boards. It is even worse for women and people of color.
Since 2020, local election officials, the vast majority of whom are women, say political attacks, safety concerns and misinformation are driving them from public service at all levels.
Griswold, who in 2018 became the youngest secretary of state in the country, worries about the “dampening effect” the toxic stream of abuse has on women in politics. In December, she spoke to a woman who wanted to run for the Colorado state legislature, but told her: “I have a six-year-old son. I see the threats against you and I can’t do it.”
For that reason, Griswold said she pushed for more security for her office.
“The threshold for us to get violent threats is much lower, so we experience things that a lot of people would never expect in this country,” she said.
She continued: “The federal government needs to take this seriously. States need to take this seriously. And that’s one of the reasons why we need more women elected – to understand that it’s not hysteria to say, ‘I should have security because someone is telling me repeatedly that they’re going to come kill me.’”
Despite Griswold’s efforts, Trump’s lies have gained purchase among conservative voters in her state.
“I have a county that works behind bulletproof glass,” she said. “I have a county clerk who wears a bullet-proof vest. Much of their days are spent responding to conspiracy-fueled lawsuits and information requests intended to ‘gum up’ the system and bog down her office,” she added.
And earlier this year, Tina Peters, a far-right county clerk in Colorado, was indicted on charges that she directed a breach of voting machines. The episode spurred Griswold to raise the alarm about “insider threats”.
In Colorado’s June primary, Republican voters rejected Peters’ bid to be the state’s next secretary of state.
Despite losing by nearly 15 percentage points, Peters claimed “fraud” had cost her the nomination and demanded a recount. The review, which Griswold called meritless and “based on conspiracies”, confirmed Peters’ loss.
Republicans have accused Griswold of too often blurring the line between defending democracy and defending her seat. It’s a charge many elections officials are now grappling with: when they defend elections and push for reforms, they are often accused of partisanship.
“We must reject that it is partisan to protect the right to vote. It’s not,” she said. “It’s the most American and democratic thing you can do.”
As for her own election, Griswold said her record speaks for itself. Since the 2020 election, she has helped expand voting access and strengthen election security. Her office backed a slate of reforms that gives the Colorado secretary of state’s office the power to certify elections if local officials refuse to do so, guarding against a scenario that played out earlier this summer in New Mexico, when Republican officials refused to certify an election.
The law also includes new protections against insider threats, making it a felony to compromise voting equipment or allow unauthorized access to the state’s voting systems, and stiffens the penalties for threatening election workers or “doxxing them” by publishing their personal information online. Another law passed earlier this year prohibits open-carry within 100 feet of a polling place.
Four years ago, when Griswold first ran for the post, she never imagined the kind of challengers her office would face, among them “ensuring that democracy survived a pandemic and also a president of the United States trying to steal an election”.
But for many secretaries of state, Griswold said the experience had only “further resolved our determination to not let people willing to destroy the country to win”.
This year, Griswold said she is running with her eyes wide open to the peril facing American elections – and democracy – far beyond 2022.
“The fight to try to take Americans’ freedoms, it won’t be over after the election – it won’t,” she said. “This is a long-term fight.”