Wayne’s World: Williams’ Cooperative Approach Draws Raves as Colorado SoS

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[Image courtesy of KUSA News9]

Colorado has been a hot spot in recent years as former SoS Scott Gessler made more headlines than friends with his approach to the job – but his successor, fellow Republican Wayne Williams, is flipping the equation in his first months in office. The Colorado Statesman has more:

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.

Election officials on both sides of the aisle are noticing – and loving the change:

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.”

The new approach isn’t just engendering good feelings, it’s also helping on specific policy discussions:

“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.

This cooperative relationship could even help on the oft-contentious issue of voter ID:

While Williams is winning praise for his approach, there’s still disagreement over some election policy, such as his contention that some voters should provide photo identification when they register or vote. Williams said he supports changing the law to require photo I.D. for those who register during the window when ballots are out, although anyone without a photo I.D. could register before that.

“I think you need to have that protection, that security there,” he said. “We want to make sure that everyone who can legally vote is allowed to vote. But we want to have that protection so the integrity’s safe as well, there’s that balance.”

Nuñez said that Common Cause and Williams “are in very different places” when it comes to photo I.D., though Johnson opened a door to working with Williams to find common ground.

“Voter I.D. keeps coming up every year,” Johnson said. She’s been talking with other clerks about the question. “Let’s be on the forefront with this. It’s not going to go away. I think we need to sit down and have that conversation.” Pointing out that the list of acceptable identification was concocted years ago, she added, “How do we expand it? How do we tighten it? Those are the things we need to talk about.”

Colorado’s experience is one we also are seeing in places like Iowa, Minnesota and California, where controversial outgoing Secretaries are being replaced by more cooperative newcomers. As someone who values the ability of the election administration system to get the job done, I welcome this trend; while there are deep policy divisions between the two parties, it does no one good to have the chief state election official at odds with many of the election officials and legislators within the state.

I have no doubt that this era of good feeling will be tested as the 2016 election approaches, but for now it’s encouraging to see state and local official laying the groundwork for a shared approach to the challenges facing their states.

Still, stay tuned …

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