Secretary of State Wayne Williams receives great reviews from officials and activist alike

Ernest Luning- THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Three months after being sworn in, Secretary of State Wayne Williams has mostly stayed out of the news, and that’s the way he likes it.

It’s a marked contrast from Williams’s predecessor, fellow Republican Scott Gessler, an election law attorney who embraced the nickname “honey badger,” a varmint known for the relentlessness of its attack. Where Gessler seemingly courted controversy — and was the target of one complaint after another from Democrats — Williams is taking a more conciliatory approach, working closely with county clerks across the state and stressing his office’s mission providing services to voters, businesses and nonprofit groups.

“The role, once you’re in there, isn’t about which party you’re in, it’s how you serve the citizens,” Williams said in an interview with The Colorado Statesman. “There are some things I might do differently than another individual, but I try to work very hard to make sure this government office operates the way we would if we were trying to attract customers.”

Secretary of State Wayne Williams is working to unify the states’ election systems before the 2016 presidential election.

Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The reviews of Williams have been glowing from officials and activists alike, including some who routinely clashed with Gessler at nearly every turn.

“Wayne is trying to mend a lot of the broken relationships that happened in the previous administration between the clerks and the secretary of state’s office,” said Denver County Clerk Debra Johnson, a Democrat. “More important, though, is how he is listening to what the clerks need,” she said, adding that she has “great conversations, a great working relationship” with Williams.

Arapahoe County Clerk Matt Crane, a Republican, sounded a similar note.

“Wayne has really made an effort to rebuild the relationship between the secretary’s office and the clerks,” he said. “It has to be a partnership between the clerks and the secretary, and I think that’s been lost over the last few years.” Williams, Crane said, is taking a collaborative approach when it comes to drafting legislation and rules, working to “come up with solutions that make sense for everybody.”

That Williams is patching up relations with clerks might not come as a huge surprise — he was El Paso County clerk when he ran last fall, the first time in the state’s history that a sitting clerk has been elected secretary of state — but he’s winning rare praise even from typically critical quarters.

“There’s a lot more communication,” said Elena Nuñez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. “Secretary Williams has been willing to sit down and find common ground when we can do that, and that’s a great approach coming from the secretary of state’s office.”

She pointed to a bill — Senate Bill 15-060 — that Common Cause originally opposed but, after working on amendments with Williams’s office, the organization was eventually “excited to support it, thanks to the secretary’s leadership,” she said. “I think it will result in better legislation going forward.” (The bill, which has passed both chambers unanimously, allows residents to update their voter registration when they update driver’s licenses.)

“We’ve tried to concentrate our efforts in the Legislature on those issues that have a good chance of passing,” Williams said, acknowledging that most of the legislation his office has worked on this year amounts to “cleaning up around the edges.” The split majorities in the Legislature, he added, encourage practical compromise.

Also included on his office’s legislative agenda are a bill allowing voters to opt out of receiving a mail ballot and potentially a proposal for the state to help pay for 24-7 ballot drop boxes in counties that might not be able to afford it. (The cost can run as high as $10,000 for sites that don’t already have surveillance cameras installed.)

Williams has also put together a bipartisan task force to study questions about how poll watchers can operate in elections conducted mostly by mail ballot, a response to a bill that died earlier this session “because it wasn’t quite ready yet,” he said.

Down the road, Williams said he wants to figure out a constitutional amendment to run on next year’s ballot to resolve conflicts between requirements for military and overseas voters and constitutional deadline.

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