Aug 22, 2022 - News

Jena Griswold's ads use taxpayer dollars and boost her image

A screenshot from the "Trusted Sources" TV ad running in Colorado and featuring Jena Griswold
A screenshot from the "Trusted Sources" TV ad running in Colorado

As she seeks re-election, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold is spending more than $1 million in taxpayer dollars on statewide TV commercials that will boost her image.

Why it matters: The money comes from an account that covers the cost of election equipment and software upgrades — a move that is generating questions and criticism.

  • County clerks — the elected officials who administer elections in Colorado — wanted to spend the money on improving voting access, but they say they were rebuffed.

What's happening: The commercial in question features Griswold and her Republican predecessor, Wayne Williams, asking voters to "be alert" about election misinformation. They affirm that the state's election systems are secure.

  • The 30-second spot will air roughly 5,000 times this month in the Denver, Colorado Springs and Grand Junction markets, as well as on cable and streaming services, Axios has learned.
  • It will play mostly during popular shows and events, including the evening and morning news, ABC's "Bachelorette" and Broncos preseason games.

Reality check: The impact goes well beyond the commercial's stated goal.

  • Griswold is less known than other statewide officials seeking another term this November, and the TV face time with voters will improve her name recognition and bipartisan image — both key components to winning re-election.
  • Williams, a Colorado Springs council member, is looking to improve his image as well. He's running for mayor and facing blowback from conservatives worried about election security.

By the numbers: All told, Griswold has spent more than $4.3 million in federal and state funding since 2020 on such commercials, documents reviewed by Axios Denver show.

  • The new $1.1 million TV buy comes after she spent $425,000 to produce and publish similar videos on digital platforms ahead of the June primary.
  • And in 2020, Griswold featured herself in a $2.8 million TV ad campaign using pandemic relief funds.

What they're saying: "The priority for this secretary is herself," said Pam Anderson, the Republican candidate for the secretary of state, who has called for the TV ads to stop. "I think this is a pattern."

  • In addition, the conservative Public Trust Institute recently filed a campaign complaint against Griswold for misspending money because the commercial amounts to a campaign ad.

The other side: Griswold defended the spending, citing ongoing disinformation related to the primary vote recount requested by former GOP candidate Tina Peters as justification.

  • She has not responded directly to questions about the source of the money, or to demands to take down the ad.

What's next: More advertising from Griswold is expected in coming months. The contract with Inline Media to air the most recent commercials includes an additional $1.1 million for digital and print advertising ahead of the general election, a document indicates.

  • Inline Media, a Denver-based firm whose CEO Ilene Nathanson is a donor to Democratic candidates, is poised to make $310,000 from the deal.

Details: The ad spending comes from federal Help America Vote Act funds, which the state matches. The money is traditionally earmarked for helping the state and counties, which administer elections, upgrade equipment and software, Griswold's office acknowledged.

  • Griswold spokesperson Annie Orloff says the scope of permitted spending has expanded to election security. Moreover, the TV ads are less than 10% of the overall $15 million in the account and focusing on disinformation is a permissible use, she tells us.

Yes, but: On top of questioning the timing and self-promotion, Anderson says the HAVA money would be better spent helping counties address security gaps and upgrading Colorado's aging voter registration system.

  • "I'm incredibly concerned," said Anderson, a former county clerk and director of the statewide clerks association. "I know those resources are limited … and there are projects still in the hopper that are vital for elections and securing voting systems."
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