Secretary of State candidate Jocelyn Benson talks election security

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CADILLAC — The sole Democrat who is running for Secretary of State in Michigan stopped by the Cadillac News on Wednesday, June 19 for an interview.

Jocelyn Benson is a graduate of Harvard Law School, former Dean of Wayne State University School of Law, and current CEO and Executive Director of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE).

Her conversation with the Cadillac News has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

CADILLAC NEWS: It’s your second time running for Secretary of State. How has Michigan changed since 2010?

BENSON: Well, I think I’ve continued to grow and Michigan has also continued to grow. So, for me, I’ve now been dean of a law school and I’ve run a public institution where I froze tuition and I expanded our services, learning how to do more with less. And so I’ve built a track record of getting things done. And I also became a military spouse. My husband enlisted in the Army in 2011 and we had several formative experiences during this time and after four years of active duty and he’s now in the reserves. Those two experiences really impacted and influenced me this time around on my decision to run again.

My deep understanding of election law administration has remained and has only grown and I’ve brought these additional perspectives and experiences to bear as well on my candidacy.

I think, from Michigan’s standpoint, we’ve seen really no growth strictly on our election side of things. We still — all the issues I’ve identified as lacking in Michigan: no reason absentee early voting — all these things that have put us behind other states still have not been addressed. At the same time, we’ve seen real threats to the security of our elections emerge nationally that can potentially impact our state, so I think we’re at a critical moment, more so this time around, in our democracy. We need to ensure the next Secretary of State is prepared on day one to protect the security of our elections through — I can tell you my plan — post-election random audits that will ensure our machines are accurately counting out ballots and aren’t being hacked; we need to bring together a task force of the best and brightest computer scientists from around the country to advise us on what they’re seeing.

I think there’s been an increased recognition of the critical moment that we’re in, in our democracy and what happens when people aren’t engaged and when our elections are not secure.

CADILLAC NEWS: Are you talking around an increased interest in democracy in the number of voters that flat-out didn’t vote the last time or are you talking about Russian meddling?

BENSON: Both. As I’ve been going around the state — in 2010 there was kind of a recognition that things like no-reason absentee voting and overall the factors that are leading to declining voter turnout and engagement in our state were an issue. Now I think it’s turning into a stronger, even fever pitch of recognition among citizens that we need to do more to engage our fellow citizens in the process. And the consequences that happen if we don’t.

On the second side, yes — the threats to our security. We have an election where there was evidence of potential tampering in the results. We had a recount here in Michigan that was unable to go forward because of problems with the security of our ballots and many other factors in the Supreme Court, so I just think those issues in multiple have increased in importance.

CADILLAC NEWS: You’ve answered a piece of my next question: how should Michigan change going forward? No-reason absentee ballots?

BENSON: Yeah. Those types of things are basic protections that voters in other states have. I’ll step back and say that my view is we should be making it easier to vote and harder to cheat.

So we need to do everything we can to increase the access and convenience of the vote while at the same time doing everything that we can to protect the security of the process. We really haven’t been doing a lot on both of those ends. We’ve seen not a lot of progress on either of those fronts in this state over the past several decades. And as a result, other states are really innovating and their voters are more engaged and turnout is higher as a result. I want to bring some of those ideas to Michigan.

CADILLAC NEWS: How much higher is it in the best state versus Michigan?

BENSON: The best states in a presidential year will get up to 80 percent turnout — off the top of my head, and I’m talking about Minnesota, Oregon are consistently among the top 5 in turnout — we’re usually, at best, around the low 70s, usually around 50. When I ran in ‘10 it was 38 percent — and those were of registered voters. That’s the turnout among registered voters. There’s a sizable chunk of the population that just don’t even register.

I have two key metrics that I will use to evaluate my success as Secretary of State. One is our wait time decreasing, which is why we’ve announced a 30-minute guarantee. And two is turnout increasing. My goal is, at whatever point I leave the office, my goal would be for turnout to increase and those wait times to decrease.

CADILLAC NEWS: Why does political party matter for Secretary of State?

BENSON: I don’t think it does.

I mean, look. The Democratic Party, to me, is the party of the Voting Rights Act. And that’s why I call myself a Democrat. Because it was the party that made a courageous step to protect everyone’s vote, even if it meant losing their own votes, which I think is key to ensuring your democracy works for everyone. I believe very strongly that Secretary of State needs to be a neutral arbiter of our elections. And the other responsibilities of the office are basically advocating for our drivers to have safer roads and access to better evaluations of preparation to drive. Safer roads — that’s not a partisan issue.

We all want to see driver’s fees lower, we all want to see roads safer. So I don’t see this as a partisan race. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to garner support from people on both sides of the aisle.

CADILLAC NEWS: What can you do for Cadillac specifically?

BENSON: I think my plan for the state, of freezing and advocating against any increases in driver fees, just as I advocated against tuition increases as Dean of Wayne State (University Law School), is certainly relevant for the drivers here in Cadillac as well as registration fees for boats and RVs and other vehicles that the Secretary of State all oversees.

In addition to that, that 30-minute guarantee applies statewide. We want to ensure that people, no matter where you live in the state, are able to get in and out of a branch office consistently in 30 minutes or less. In addition to that, in addition to the democracy pieces I talked about — election security and transparency in elections and good government — there also are very unique issues in rural communities that I’ve found here in Michigan. Whether it’s how far you have to travel to get to your precinct — which oftentimes can be mitigated if you have something like no-reason absentee, where you can just vote absentee or by mail without having to travel — that’s gonna be of particular importance to our voters in rural communities.

Traveling to branch offices isn’t always easy as well, when you have one that is meant to serve the entire county, as you have here. So I think making sure people have access to state services and access to the vote is critical in rural communities like this one.

CADILLAC NEWS: Just this past weekend, an unlicensed driver allegedly caused a wreck in Cadillac. I’m wondering, statistically, are unlicensed drivers a real problem in Michigan, and if so, what you can do about it?

BENSON: Yeah. And uninsured drivers as well, which I think speaks to the need for insurance reform. We have unlicensed drivers, unlicensed vehicles and uninsured drivers, all of which reflect flaws in the current law that create incentives or don’t create enough disincentives for people to drive without any of those things. So I do want to crack down on anyone who is driving without a license and making sure that we’re providing access.

A lot of people drive without a license because of driver responsibility fees or things like that, so we need to address those deeper issues. But certainly, the goal would be to ensure that there are only licensed drivers on the roads with a goal toward protecting the safety of our roads and other drivers.

So looking at the reasons why people make decisions to not do those things and to try to fix it will be a key part of my leadership.

CADILLAC NEWS: Is there anything the Secretary of State’s office can do to help these kids separated from their parents at the border?

BENSON: As we post things on social media, it feels weird to be talking about anything else. I’m a mom of a 2-year-old. You just picture your kid there. Or, as a parent, it’s incomprehensible that we can be this inhumane right now as a country.

What I’ve seen that’s given me some sliver of hope are two things: one, that we live in a democracy, still, and I’m running to make sure that democracy is protected and that voices are heard. And so I think, whether it’s local elections or national elections, I’m gonna do everything I can to ensure that everyone’s voices are heard, because I think that is one of the more powerful ways people who oppose the current administration’s policies can respond, and respond with integrity, where their voice is protected and not suppressed.

The second piece that is really hopeful is the number of families who’ve stepped up to foster kids who have come to the refugee agencies here in Michigan and support financially those who are trying to remove these kids from detention centers and reunite them with their parents.

So I’ll say, as a former dean of a law school, and as a lawyer, giving money right now is one thing people can do, supporting these agencies who are trying to care for these kids, sending — whether it’s diapers to toys — to these agencies, I think is gonna be important.

And then my role as Secretary of State will be an advocate for voters across the board. I will emphasize voters, regardless of what their perspectives are, my role, by law will be to make sure their voices are heard. It will be up to citizens to make sure that they raise their voices and use their power as voters to seek the change that reflects the values that I believe we all have.

CADILLAC NEWS: Any thoughts on non-citizens voting?

BENSON: There’s no data that shows that non-citizens are voting.

There is data to suggest that, in some cases, people are accidentally registered. I think we need to ensure that we’re not accidentally or inadvertently registering non-citizens. I’ve yet to meet a non-citizen that wants to violate the law, the process, but that said, I believe in making data-driven decisions in how to best protect our system against fraud and election security and protect the security of our elections.

So that’s why we need to determine where the biggest threats to our democracy are that we need to respond and then developing solutions that address the problem as opposed to furthering any type of political rhetoric.

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