Detroit Free Press Endorsement: Jocelyn Benson should be Michigan’s next secretary of state
The secretary of state is the elected official Michiganders depend on to assure the safety of our roads and the sanctity of our elections. When whoever holds that post is doing the job right, competence and integrity matter infinitely more than party affiliation.
Four years ago, the Free Press was proud to endorse Republican incumbent Ruth Johnson for re-election, acknowledging that Johnson’s efforts to reduce waiting times, make campaign finance more transparent, and streamline customers’ interactions with the secretary of state’s office had earned her a second term.
But this year, Democrat JOCELYN BENSON has emerged as the candidate best qualified to succeed the term-limited Johnson as chief advocate for Michigan’s drivers and voters.
In 2010, when she first ran for secretary of state, Benson was already a nationally recognized authority on election law. She prepared for that initial campaign by writing a book that profiled 10 successful secretaries of state across the country — five from each major party — and highlighted best practices in motor vehicle regulation, voter registration and election administration.
In the eight years since, Benson, now 40, has augmented her already formidable resume by serving as the dean of Wayne State University Law School, founding an organization for military spouses, and heading a philanthropic non-profit that seeks to harness the power of sports to improve race relations and promote economic equality.
Her relentless advocacy for voting rights paved the way for grassroots campaigns to reform Michigan’s redistricting process and make voting easier for working parents, students and Michiganders serving in the military. At a time when the electoral process is under siege by adversaries within and outside the country, no one has been more thoughtful and deliberate about what Michigan must do to protect the integrity of its elections.
Acknowledging her Republican predecessors’ successes in streamlining motor vehicle licensing and registration, Benson proposes to build on those achievements by advocating for multiple-year vehicle registrations and a 30-minute guarantee for citizens conducting face-to-face transactions at secretary of state offices across the state. She pledges to hold the line against driver fee increases at least until the state can demonstrate that fee revenues are being used effectively to improve the quality of Michigan roads.
Unread and unready
Benson’s Republican opponent, Mary Treder Lang, is a certified public accountant who has served as an Eastern Michigan University regent. She portrays herself as the logical successor to a trio of Republican predecessors, including incumbent Johnson, Terri Lynn Land and Candice Miller, who made it possible for Michigan motorists to conduct more of their business with the secretary of state’s office by phone, mail or internet.
Treder Lang, 58, pledges that if she is elected most Michiganders will need to visit a secretary of state’s office in person only once every eight years (to get a driver’s license with a current photo). That’s convenient enough — but someone should tell the Republican nominee that drivers can already do that.
That’s only one of the more glaring gaps in Treder Lang’s familiarity with the office she aspires to lead.
She says she has no plans to read her opponent’s book on the history of the secretary of state’s office (asked why, she complained that the book was printed by publisher based in Great Britain), and that voters she has encountered on the campaign trail express little interest in the secretary of state’s role as the overseer of elections.
And while Treder Lang’s reluctance to acknowledge her opponent’s expertise may be understandable, she displays a similar lack of curiosity about her Republican predecessor’s experience.
In an interview with the Free Press Editorial Board earlier this month, Treder Lang said incumbent Secretary of State Johnson had recently spent several days briefing her about the office’s operation . But she professed ignorance of Johnson’s well-publicized efforts to mandate increased disclosure of campaign contributions, or of the Republican state Legislature’s success in blocking those reforms. And she expressed no interest in continuing Johnson’s campaign to promote greater transparency.
She appears totally unfamiliar with an ongoing League of Women Voters lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of Michigan’s redistricting process, and she opposes Proposal 2, a ballot initiative that would vest responsibility for drawing the state’s legislative and congressional boundaries in a non-partisan citizen’s commission.
She also intends to vote against Proposal 3, a proposed constitutional amendment that would streamline voter registration, make it easier to cast an absentee ballot, restore Michigan’s straight-ticket voting option, and strengthen guarantees that the votes of Michiganders serving in the military will be counted.
Treder Lang insists she would enforce the provisions of both proposals if they are adopted by voters. But Benson’s track record of support for both initiatives makes her more likely to champion their smooth implementation.
The post Benson and Treder Lang seek is not a particularly glamorous one, and it is hardly a sure stepping stone to higher office. The more smoothly the critical functions her office oversees run, the less likely the next secretary of state is to garner outsized media attention.
But with the democratic process facing unprecedented challenges to its integrity and credibility, it has never been more important that Michigan’s electoral infrastructure and procedures be in trustworthy hands.
No candidate in recent memory has prepared more diligently or methodically than Jocelyn Benson has to assume the responsibilities of the secretary of state’s office. She seems likely to become the sort of leader whose own example and best practices future aspirants to statewide office will want to study and emulate.