Secretary of state candidate speaks in Owosso

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OWOSSO — Easier access to the ballot box and financial transparency were issues Democratic nominee for Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson discussed Friday night at the 24th annual Pasta and Politics dinner, hosted at the Comstock Inn and Conference Center.

Benson, of Detroit, ran previously in 2010 only to be defeated by the current incumbent, Republican Ruth Johnson. She said the decision to run a second time was fueled by issues she and her husband, Ryan Friedrichs — who served in Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Brigade — faced when he was stationed overseas.

“I came home in August of 2012 … and found an envelope that was in my husband’s handwriting from his base in Afghanistan to the Detroit city clerk. It was his ballot in the 2012 presidential election primary, and it was stamped ‘Undeliverable’ and returned to sender to our home,” Benson told an audience of about 75 people.

“There are few things that are as much of a gut punch … to come home while your husband is serving in Afghanistan, finding his ballot returned undeliverable. It was one of the moments where I decided to run again because we need to figure this out. No service member, no family member, no citizen, no eligible voter in the state of Michigan should ever feel that their ballot is returned undeliverable. And when I’m secretary of state I’m going to work every day to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Benson, 40, was the keynote speaker at the event, and was joined by Kelly Rossman-McKinney, of DeWitt, who is running for 24th State Senate district, which encompasses Eaton, Clinton and Shiawassee counties, as well as the northeastern portion of Ingham County.

Also on hand was Owosso resident Eric Sabin, who recently announced his intention of running against Republican incumbent Ben Frederick for the position of State Representative for Michigan’s 85th District, which includes Shiawassee County and the southern portion of Saginaw County.

Benson is currently CEO and executive director of the national nonprofit Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE). She also serves on several national boards including the advisory board of iCivics, a nonprofit founded by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. From 2012-16 Benson was the dean of the Wayne State University School of Law.

But despite her endeavours across the state, Benson has connections to Shiawassee County, as her husband served alongside slain U.S. Army Pfc. Shane Cantu, a Corunna native who was killed in Afghanistan in August 2012.

“Corunna, Owosso and Shiawassee County are very close to my heart because my husband served with Shane Cantu, who, as you all know, lost his life in Afghanistan,” Benson said.

Benson said Friday her husband went through basic training with Cantu, and was also deployed with him. Each year, Benson said she and her husband run in the Campaign for Shane 5K, a run dedicated to Cantu’s memory.

“It’s because of that connection to this community and our love for this community and support for you all and Shane’s memory that this particular part of the state is so meaningful to us. That’s why I’m back again this year,” Benson said.

As secretary of state, Benson said she would seek to progress the state office toward different features other states possess that Michigan does not. Notably, Benson said she would like Michigan to allow no-reason absentee voting, in which voters are allowed to vote as an absentee without offering a specific reason.

“It’s time that we caught up with Kentucky and Kansas and almost every other state in the country that has these basic conveniences that we don’t have here in Michigan,” she said.

Benson also touched on security, which has been a hot topic since the 2016 election due to speculation of hacker interference on voting machines and data. Benson suggested post-election audits to ensure machines correctly counted ballots, and said she would devise a task force to oversee voting security.

“In the 2016 election, we saw real threats to the security of our democracy,” Benson said. “We know that there were efforts to hack and interfere our democracy, to nationally impact our machines, to take data from our voters and use it possibly for nefarious means. Regardless of what happened in 2016, the threats to the security of our elections did not begin and will not end with that election.”

Benson also said she hopes to streamline the wait at the secretary of state to 30 minutes or fewer a visit, including devising a way to tell people how long they can expect to wait before being helped.

“We need that basic expectation for how our government should operate. Every citizen in this state should feel we’re committed and dedicated to getting you in and out of a branch office in under 30 minutes,” she said. “Under my administration, we’re going to work every day to make sure we meet that basic standard for our customers, for our citizens, for the people of the state of Michigan, because you deserve a secretary of state who will work hard toward that and work hard as you all do.”

Instant disclosure of all money in the political process also was a topic Benson said she’d address as secretary of state, noting that voters should be informed when a state official votes on a bill that personally benefits them.

“We’re one of two states that don’t require our state representatives to disclose their financial interests. So, if they’re voting on a bill that will benefit them financially, they don’t even need to disclose that,” she said. “I’m going to be a secretary of state that fights to transform transparency in government and fights for your voices to be heard every day.”

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