Colorado Secretary of State Griswold wants to limit some election recounts

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold has called on lawmakers to limit the use of discretionary recounts in state elections to only close races, arguing that the current system allows for “bad actors” to inject doubts into often settled races.

“It’s an important check on democracy that candidates in close races can have that recount,” Griswold, a Democrat in her second term, said in an interview Monday. The recount provision would be part of a broader bill she’s working on with Senate Democrats to tweak the state’s elections laws. “But when you have double-digit margins, it’s implausible — so unlikely — that a recount will actually lead to a change in the actual results.”

But the president of the Senate — the man who’s drafting the bill Griswold is pitching — isn’t sold on the recount adjustment. In fact, he told reporters last week, he thinks it would do the very thing Griswold says it would help avoid: sow doubt in election results.

“The purpose is to make sure there’s confidence in the outcome of the election,” said Sen. Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. “I want to make sure that whatever we do, we’re actually increasing confidence in our elections, rather than giving people a reason to think someone is hiding something, which we aren’t.”

Under the current system, there’s an automatic recount if the difference between candidates is within 0.5%, as was the case during U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert’s narrow victory over Democratic challenger Adam Frisch in November. Candidates outside of that 0.5% window can pay for their own recount, as then-Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters did last year, after she lost her primary bid to become Griswold’s Republican challenger by more than 14 points.

It’s Peters’ long-shot recount that helped prompt Griswold’s desire to change how the system works here. Her legislative ask would put an upper limit on discretionary recounts: Only candidates within 2% of their opponent could seek one. Candidates who lost by more than that, Griswold reasoned, are unlikely to benefit from a recount anyway.

Beyond the recount provision, she also wants to automatically enroll tribal members to vote while requiring counties to post results by a set time on Election Night. Larger counties — those over 10,000 voters — would also be required to begin tabulating ballots at least four days in advance under her proposal.

Such tweaks are common after elections, she and Fenberg said, and most of the bill would consist of technical changes and tweaks. The automatic enrollment for tribal members would be unique in the United States, Griswold said, and her plan would also guarantee early voting access in those areas in the days before an election. Her desire for earlier, more prescriptive tabulation is born of election conspiracies about late counting and results.

“The big lie and misinformation have led to election workers, clerks, my office having their lives threatened,” she said, referring to the false conspiracy theory that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. “It led to two security breaches in Elbert and Mesa County. Lies led to a voter trying to compromise voting equipment during (primary) Election Day in 2022. They led to conspiracy after conspiracy.”

As for recounts, Griswold said Peters’ recount last year put “tremendous” strain on election workers and that it sought to cast doubt on the state’s election integrity. Limiting them to only closer races, she said, would ensure the process wasn’t abused.

Peters didn’t return a request for comment this week. But Dave Williams, a former state representative, 2020 election-denier and the newly elected chairman of the state Republican Party, criticized Griswold’s proposal as non-transparent and accused her of wanting to keep voters in the dark.

Fenberg, the Democratic Senate president, said he hasn’t talked with “stakeholders” about the bill yet and that there may be a ceiling — albeit higher than Griswold’s proposed 2% — for discretionary recounts.

The proposal does have the support of the state’s local election officials, said Matt Crane, the executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association. He said in an interview Tuesday that the clerks weren’t “insensitive” to Fenberg’s concerns — that limiting recounts would undermine trust — but he said the state’s voting systems are secure and accurate.

“So does it make sense even if somebody wants to pay, if somebody’s 18 points down, to come and spend time, waste county time with a recount? Probably not,” Crane said. “Does it make even less sense to allow people like Tina Peters, who knows these systems are accurate but uses that as a way to raise money from people, (to pursue a recount) — does that make a lot of sense? No.”

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