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Politics and Government

“Harassment, vitriol and violent threats”: Colorado’s top elections official is asking for security

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold has requested about $200,000 annually from the legislature for guards and threat monitoring

In this June 30, 2020, file photo, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold makes a point during a news conference at a mobile voting location in the Swansea neighborhood in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
  • Credibility:

The threats lobbed at Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold and her staff in recent months have been plentiful — and sometimes hauntingly specific. 

“I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP,” one person wrote in an online message. “I SEE YOU SLEEPING. BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID.”

“I hope you die.”

The vitriol has reached the point that the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office is asking state lawmakers for help. The office is seeking a new annual appropriation of about $200,000 to “address election-related security concerns” stemming from the threats, many of which originated with people who believe baseless claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Griswold’s profile has risen in recent months as she has appeared on national television to lambaste GOP efforts to question the nation’s voting systems and the 2020 presidential election results. She’s also been at the center of a feud with Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, a Republican who has spread baseless claims about the 2020 presidential election being stolen and who is under federal, state and local criminal investigation for her alleged role in a breach of her county’s election system.  

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The money from the legislature would allow the secretary of state’s office to pay for a security guard or guards to accompany Griswold, a Democrat, and some of her staff at “key public events.” But the majority of the funds would be used to pay a vendor to track threats on social media platforms.

Nonpartisan legislative staff wrote in a budget briefing document that the Colorado Department of State “has significant safety concerns” for Griswold and that the department has not consistently or reliably had access to physical security for her.

The Colorado State Patrol has at times provided security for Griswold, but the agency sometimes declines requests because threats against her “don’t meet their standards for actionability” or because it lacks the capacity, according to the briefing document. The agency is required to provide protection only for Gov. Jared Polis or for members of the legislature when statehouse leadership makes a request.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis, right, heads into a news conference about the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations in the state Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Denver. He is flanked by members of his Colorado State Patrol security detail. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

As for threat tracking, Griswold’s office currently relies on existing staff untrained in security matters to monitor threats made online. 

“Like other agencies responsible for carrying out elections across the country, the Colorado Secretary of State’s office has experienced an unprecedented spike in threats toward the secretary of state and the office,” said Annie Orloff, a spokeswoman for Griswold. “Election administrators and workers have been the target of harassment, vitriol and violent threats.”

The secretary of state’s office says the threats aren’t just scary; they also are hurting efforts to hire and retain the workforce needed to administer elections. 

This isn’t the first time Griswold and her office have sought more security in recent months.

This news first appeared in The Unaffiliated. Subscribe here to get the twice-weekly political newsletter from The Colorado Sun.

Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission denied a request from the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State earlier this year to provide private security for Griswold, who is chair of the organization. The DASS provided examples of threats lobbed at Griswold as part of its request. Here’s a sampling:

  • “The punishment for treason is death. NO DEALS!”
  • “YOU ARE GOING DOWN B—.”
  • “There are people looking for you.”
  • “Look over your shoulder B—.”
  • “Do you know what we do to traitors?”

The Secretary of State’s Office also says that Griswold’s private information has been posted online.

The ethics commission ruled the security services would be a prohibited gift under the Colorado constitution because DASS is a political action committee focused on electing Democrats. But commissioners also said that “unquestionably, the government should pay for protection for its public officials.”

Wayne Williams, a Republican who served as secretary of state before Griswold, said he and his staff were threatened during his tenure, though “it was nothing to the point that I thought it necessary to seek funding for security.” 

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But Williams said he knows election officials and workers have been subjected to more vitriol in recent years. That’s part of the reason why he agreed to serve on the advisory board for the Election Official Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit that connects election administrators with attorneys.

“I’m aware that the concern over threats is certainly higher,” he said.

The state lawmakers who write the budget seem open to Griswold’s proposal. 

“I can certainly see some need here,” said Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who sits on the Joint Budget Committee. “We all saw an explosion of this kind of (threat) activity.”

Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat who is vice chair of the JBC, said there may be a way to ensure Griswold and her staff get the security they need through the State Patrol, which is seeking $4.5 million next fiscal year to bolster the team that provides security to the governor and at the Capitol.

“The bulk of the conversation will be around whether the security needs of the secretary of state’s office can be folded into this broader request for Capitol security,” Moreno said.

Voters drop off their ballots on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The $4.5 million would allow the State Patrol to hire 28 new employees for its Executive Security Unit.

A request from the Colorado Department of Public Safety notes that the State Patrol’s Capitol security force is experiencing a “significant increase in demand for personnel and response.” Right now, only about 20 security personnel are responsible for protecting the 2.6 million square feet in and around the Capitol complex, with just 10 of those being actual sworn officers. Workers billed for nearly 16,000 hours of overtime in 2020.

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The funding would also go toward improving security at the Legislative Services Building across the street from the Capitol where the Joint Budget Committee meets. The building is “one of the most insecure buildings within the Capitol complex,” with no metal detectors or X-ray machine. There also are no full-time officers guarding the building.

The Department of Public Safety said the extra funds would pay for the creation of a security checkpoint at the Legislative Services Building similar to the ones at the Capitol. The checkpoint would be staffed during regular business hours and any time committees are meeting in the building.

The money would also allow the Colorado State Patrol’s Executive Security Unit to increase its staffing in part so that the unit can complete more timely threat investigations against state lawmakers. A request to pay for dedicated overtime funding “is intended to create a surge capability to take on additional temporary protection assignments based on threat.”

The legislature as of late has been keenly focused on threats against government workers.

Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 64 earlier this year, which makes it a misdemeanor to harass or retaliate against an elected official or their family, and a Class 6 felony — which carries potential prison time — to make a “credible threat” against them.

Colorado Sun staff writers Daniel Ducassi and Thy Vo contributed to this report.