DENVER - Both candidates for secretary of state in Colorado have interesting upbringings that in some ways shaped their lives.
El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams, the Republican candidate, was brought up on a zoo in the hills of Virginia. His father was the facilities manager and a civil engineer who oversaw the 3,000-acre facility in the Shenandoah Valley.
Williams, 51, described his roots as humble.
“We lived along with the third-largest herd of Père David’s deer in the world, and European bison,” Williams said.
University of Colorado Regent for Congressional District 2, Joe Neguse, is a first-generation American whose parents fled a war-torn country in east Africa.
“They taught us at a very early age how important it is not to take for granted the sacred freedoms that we have in the United States of America that don’t exist in a lot of places in the world, and it begins with a right to vote,” 30-year-old Neguse, a Democrat, recently told The Durango Herald.
Other candidates running are Amanda Campbell, American Constitution Party, and David Schambach, Libertarian.
The secretary of state is responsible for overseeing elections and business filings, among other administrative areas.
The ‘Honey Badger’ factor
Whoever wins the election will replace Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican who gained a reputation as a partisan, earning the nickname “Honey Badger.” Gessler passed on re-election this year for a failed run at governor.
For Williams, separating himself from Gessler is something Democrats don’t want him to succeed at. But Williams said he doesn’t have to stretch too far.
He laughed that in 2012, Gessler’s office sued his office because Williams canceled primaries that were uncontested.
He pointed out that he already has relationships with clerks, having reached out to La Plata County Clerk & Recorder Tiffany Lee Parker, a Republican, who he expects to have a good working relationship with, if elected.
“Scott and I are very different people,” Williams said. “I have been in local government for 12 years. ... That experience in local government means that I come from a different background, and it’s also a collaborative background.”
Contention over elections reform
But Neguse believes Williams and Gessler have similar agendas.
He pointed out that both Williams and Gessler opposed House Bill 1303 in 2013 that expanded voter registration through Election Day and required clerks to mail ballots to all voters. Democrats touted the measure as an opportunity to expand voter rolls and make voting easier.
“I was proud to support those measures,” said Neguse, pointing out that only a handful of clerks opposed the reforms.
“There were a few folks who opposed it, one was our current secretary, and the other was my Republican opponent, who stood side by side in opposing those reforms,” Neguse said.
Williams said he opposed HB 1303 largely because it limited local control.
“1303 does not give local elected officials the ability to make adjustments based on actual voter desires in their community,” Williams said.
Is voter ID necessary?
Another distinction between Neguse and Williams is over photo identification in order to vote. Williams believes it is necessary to curb fraud, but Neguse just doesn’t see a problem, noting only isolated incidents.
“Most people in Colorado vote honestly, but I think almost all people in Colorado want those elections run honestly, and that means you have to have protections to ensure it is a fair election and it’s an honest election,” Williams said of voter ID. “It’s a safeguard.”
Neguse, however, worries about disenfranchising certain voting blocs with voter-ID laws, including the elderly and indigent.
“I’m far more concerned with the hundreds of thousands of Coloradans in our state who are eligible to vote who aren’t doing so ...” Neguse said. “I’d like to work with the county clerks and other stakeholders to figure out ways we break down barriers to the ballot box so that we can encourage and empower those folks to ultimately participate in our democracy.”
But Williams said Neguse simply lacks the experience to administer elections. Neguse’s background is in law and politics.
Williams, also an attorney, has administered several successful elections, including a historic recall election in 2013. He is also a certified elections registration administrator.
“I’m the only candidate running who has actually run elections, and not just for Republicans in El Paso County, but Democrats in the San Luis Valley chose me to run their election because they trusted me, and I did it right,” Williams said.
But Neguse said he is right for the job because he does not have a long experience in party politics. Williams once served as the chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party. Neguse said the secretary of state should be nonpartisan and apolitical.
“At the end of the day, I believe my background speaks to my ability to work on a bipartisan basis with others to come up with ways in which we can make it easier and more accessible for citizens to participate,” Neguse said. “That is the key difference between me and my opponent.”