Why you should care

Reagan-loving Wayne Williams is being lauded for expanding access to the polls.

OZY's 2020 election coverage focuses on who votes and why.OZY's 2020 election coverage focuses on who votes and why.

When Wayne Williams moved to Front Royal, Virginia, it was still run by Southern Democrats who, two decades before, had closed schools rather than desegregate. Feeling like race relations hadn’t improved enough under their leadership, the high school class president organized 70 of his classmates to stand outside precincts, passing out literature for Republicans in 1979. “We made a difference when most of us weren’t old enough to vote,” says Williams, whose yearbook shows him touting a Reagan-Bush “The Time Is Now” pin.

Fall 1980 speaking at wchs assembly

At Warren County High School, Williams was a surrogate speaker for Ronald Reagan, Fall 1980.

The experience taught him the power of the polls. As Colorado’s secretary of state during the 2016 and 2018 elections, Williams emerged as a refreshing Republican voice for expanding voter access, at a time when his party is better known for pushing restrictions like voter ID laws. The 56-year-old built out a nonpartisan elections office while serving under a Democratic governor now running for president, and Colorado trailed only Minnesota in voter turnout in the midterms. Everyone from the Washington Post to then-Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen lauded the state as having the most secure election system in America, protected against election hacking. And that’s no accident since Williams adopted nearly every measure election experts suggested after reports of Russian hacking emerged. His aim was to be able to “tell you that nobody in Russia, nobody in China, nobody anywhere else in the world can change a ballot in Colorado.”

Amid a Democratic wave across the nation, his election was noticeably smooth, even as other Republican secretaries of state, such as Brian Kemp in Georgia and Kris Kobach in Kansas, drew scrutiny. And despite losing his own reelection last November, Williams is still somebody worth watching. He is working as an elections consultant nationwide, most notably as a member of the new Election Security Commission for Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. And Williams is considered a future Republican contender for governor or the U.S. Senate. “He has great name ID, was a phenomenal secretary of state. I really see him in the future of Colorado politics,” says Garrett Flicker, secretary for the Denver Republicans.

The claims that everybody commits voter fraud and nobody commits voter fraud are both wrong.

Wayne Williams

For now, Williams is a newly elected city councilman in Colorado Springs, the state’s second-largest city, where he first made his mark as an employment lawyer. He’s only been on the job a week when we step into a City Hall conference room too small for his big personality and booming laugh, both well-known in political circles. The Mormon father of four jokes that after returning to Brigham Young University to finish his political science degree after a missionary year in Alaska, he was missing some pretty serious cultural knowledge. “I came back, and Thriller had come out while I was gone. I was like, ‘What is a Thriller?’”

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Williams fishing at his grandfather Adams’ farm just south of Douglas, Georgia.

Williams is more serious when talking elections. People get engaged when they have meaningful things to vote for, he says. In Colorado, citizens vote on any proposed tax increase. A robust ballot referendum system means people can put statutes up for a statewide vote if they get enough signatures (the number is now set at 124,632). That process helped Colorado become the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, in 2012. Everything from school bonds to physician-assisted suicide can be decided by a simple majority. “You may not care about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but you might care about all these other issues,” Williams says.

It helps that voting is easier here, with a ballot mailed to you 22 days ahead of Election Day and deliverable to any 24/7 election drop-off box in any Colorado county. Even more than ease of access, Williams claims, trust drives voters. Colorado has a paper ballot for every vote, a check against the hacking of digital systems, and launched the nation’s first postelection audit in November 2017. A bipartisan team (one Republican, one Democrat) conducts quality control checks on randomized ballots. Williams references a recent NPR/Marist survey that showed a third of Americans believe foreign governments can change votes in U.S. elections. “People need to have confidence that every vote is going to be counted,” Williams says. “It wasn’t an easy process. I got sued by people who didn’t like the changes, election vendors that didn’t make signature-verifiable equipment, counties that didn’t want me to tell them what to do.”

Williams wasn’t always such a believer, as his critics point out. Before running for secretary of state in 2014, he was El Paso County’s clerk and recorder — and railed against bills that created same-day Election Day registration and the statewide vote-by-mail system. “He pounded his fist at the state Capitol and said this would create voter fraud,” says Amber McReynolds, the former Denver elections director who helped write that 2013 legislation. Williams has since “come around,” she admits.

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Williams speaking at the 2001 dedication for the restoration of Lowell Elementary School as the home of the Colorado Springs Housing Authority.

“The claims that everybody commits voter fraud and nobody commits voter fraud are both wrong,” Williams says, bashing poor election practices in both liberal New Jersey and conservative Georgia. At times, his both-sides-ism seems like a verbal tic. And some think it could hamper him in future races. “He’s not a sharp-elbow-thrower. In these general elections, we’ve seen that nice guys don’t tend to win,” says George Brauchler, the losing Republican candidate for attorney general in 2018.

But Williams’ bipartisan style is part of his appeal for Republicans looking to take back a purple state that looks bluer by the day. If a backlash to Colorado’s blue wave starts to form, expect Williams to be the face of it.

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