Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) was born on October 22, 1977. She is the daughter of two special education teachers and was raised in a working-class family. She is currently married to Chief Development Officer for the City of Detroit, Michigan, Ryan Friedrichs, and has one son.

Jocelyn Benson: Early Education and Legal Career

Benson completed her undergraduate degree at Wellesley College, where she studied political science and became the first student to be elected to the governing body for the town of Wellesley, Massachusetts. Following her graduation, Benson moved to Selma, Alabama, to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center, helping to investigate undercover domestic terrorist cells that had emerged after the Oklahoma City bombing.

She then moved to the United Kingdom, where she earned a master’s degree in sociology at Oxford University. She later received a Juris Doctorate from Harvard University Law School and served as a judicial clerk to the Honorable Damon J. Keith on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Detroit, Michigan.

In 2005, Benson became a professor of Election Law and Education Law at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. Seven years later, at just 35 years old, she was appointed the dean of the college, becoming the first woman to lead an accredited top 100 law school in United States history.

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Jocelyn Benson: Entrance Into Politics, Michigan’s 43rd Secretary of State

Prior to her election, Benson served as the CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, a national nonprofit organization focused on using the power of sports to improve race relations.

In an exclusive interview with uPolitics, Benson explained what motivated her to get into politics.

“My parents were special education teachers, so at an early age I really saw the importance of making sure everybody has a voice and has access to their ability to succeed in an education system or in democracy,” she said.

“When I began my career in Selma, Alabama… I saw firsthand how much our democracy is still under threat,” Benson continued. “So much has happened throughout our history to ensure that we have a democracy that welcomes every voice and ensures every vote is counted, but there is still unfinished business that needs to be taken care of in order to ensure those ideals of democracy are real for everyone.”

Benson was elected Michigan’s 43rd Secretary of State in 2018 and has since overseen the highest election turnout in Michigan history. She told uPolitics that she saw the role of “chief election officer” as an opportunity to make a difference.

“I didn’t necessarily want to run for office, but I did want to serve in this position because I’ve seen firsthand how these officials have a pivotal role in protecting and guarding the vote,” she said. “Part of my work is to demonstrate how a Secretary of State could be above partisanship… but also to get voters to care about these positions so that we have more good people running for them.”

Jocelyn Benson: 2020 Election

Benson’s main focus has been ensuring the security and accessibility of local, state and federal elections in Michigan. She saw the state through the 2020 election when former President Donald Trump ignited theories of election fraud and sparked a nationwide effort to decertify the results. The year marked the highest voter turnout rate in Michigan history.

When asked what she would do to prevent election denialism in the 2024 presidential election, Benson emphasized the importance of “meeting people where they are.”

“I think it’s really important to talk to people who have been lied to and fooled by people they trust so that they have the truth and at least have access to information that debunks a lot of the conspiracy theories that they’ve been fed,” she said. “That’s going to be part of the work that we have to do at the local level and that I’m really excited to embrace and take on in the months ahead.”

She also touted the Michigan election process and said that the state will continue “doing a good job running fair elections.”

“Misinformation and this cloud of noise that it brings has become an unfortunate new normal for us,” Benson explained. “We still have a job to do, and that is to make sure we run secure, accessible elections and that we begin preparing for the 2024 election cycle, making sure we’re protecting the system against efforts to change the rules from partisan lawmakers. We also have to continue making sure that we’re giving our clerks the resources they need to continue running fair and secure elections.”

Jocelyn Benson: Future Election Policies

Benson’s passion for election integrity and efficiency is what drove her to run for state office. She is currently preparing to oversee the 2024 presidential election cycle, which is expected to insight an unprecedented amount of polarization and chaos.

When asked by uPolitics how she would restructure the election process in the future, Benson listed a few Democratic agendas that she would push.

“One of the things I’ve seen as a long-time election policy advocate and now as the Secretary of State is that policies are one thing, but you need the funding and the personnel to bring them to fruition, to actually make sure that they work,” she said.

“At the top of my list is to ensure that we have a steady stream of funding, not just from the state but from the federal government as well,” Benson continued. “Secondly, that we have more protections for our election workers so that they know when they do endure threats, there will be strength… protecting them and ensuring consequences for those who are threatening them… Finally, we need to ensure that policies both increase access to the vote and protect the security of the process.”

Benson is working to modernize the voting process throughout the state of Michigan. She believes her role is to turn the wants and needs of her constituents into concrete policies.

“Voters on both sides of the aisle voted to amend our state constitution in 2018 to expand the opportunity to vote absentee, giving every citizen a right to vote from home, and ensuring people can register to vote up to and on Election Day itself. My job upon being elected was simply to implement those changes, dismantling barriers to registering to vote and expanding options for people to cast their ballots,” she said.

“In just two short years, we changed and expanded democracy in our state through these policies, no-reason absentee voting, automatic voter registration and online voter registration that enabled more citizens to participate than ever before. Particularly, young voters are more likely to register and vote on Election Day itself, perhaps they didn’t plan ahead but they still participated. To me, that really underscored that regardless of all the noise or the political machinery at the moment, if you have fair, accessible, secure voting laws in place, more people will vote and more people will be heard.”

 

Transcription: Michigan Sec. of State Jocelyn Benson On Expanding Voter Access, Fighting ‘Election Fraud Lies’ With uPolitics Founder Erik Meers

EM: So we’re trying to shine a spotlight on the role of Secretary of State in the upcoming election which, as you know, is very important. I thought we’d start out with the basic job description, can you tell us what the Secretary of State does and why that role is so important in this election?

JB: In Michigan and in many other states, the Secretary of State is the chief election officer for the entire state. So in that regard, we are not just the entity that ensures that equal access to the vote is a reality for everyone, but that the process itself is secure and that people can trust the results of the election. We are essentially in charge of democracy for our states, and in that regard, we serve as the voters’ chief advocates when it comes to policies or the administration of elections in a way that can ensure their voices are first and heard.”

EM: In this particular election with so many people doubting the results of the previous election, Secretaries of State are playing a much bigger role, right?

JB: When I started focusing on these offices back in 2000, it was after we saw a Secretary of State, Katherine Harris in Florida, make changes that didn’t allow a recount to occur that impacted the results of an entire presidential election. And then in 2004, we had a Secretary of State in Ohio, Ken Blackwell, who didn’t put enough voting machines in Cleveland and Columbus and other places, which also impacted who could vote and the outcome of a presidential election.

So I wrote a book on the Secretary of State office that came out about 12 years ago and talked about how these Secretaries of State, regardless of their party affiliation, can and must serve as guardians of the Democratic process; standing in front of any challenges and making decisions on behalf of what’s best for every voter, not one party’s voters or one party’s agenda. I’ve tried to now live that as Michigan Secretary of State, and of course, doing so at a time when there is a nationally coordinated, multi-year, multifaceted effort to dismantle democracy. It’s really shined a light on how important these offices in each state are to stand guard over election results, regardless of what they may be, and ensure we’re countering the misinformation that’s trying to dismantle voters’ faith in our process with the truth and the facts.

EM: During your term, what have you specifically done to modernize the way that Michiganders vote?

JB: I think changes to election law really need to come from the people, and that’s what we’ve seen here in Michigan. Voters on both sides of the aisle voted to amend our state constitution in 2018 to expand the opportunity to vote absentee, giving every citizen a right to vote from home, and ensuring people can register to vote up to and on Election Day itself.

My job upon being elected was simply to implement those changes, dismantling barriers to registering to vote and expanding options for people to cast their ballots. It was an honor to do that I brought in people from all over the country, who had implemented these policies in other states, and we made data-driven decisions that, lo and behold, enabled us to ultimately have the highest turnout election in Michigan’s history in 2020. In just two short years, we changed and expanded democracy in our state through these policies, no-reason absentee voting, automatic voter registration and online voter registration that enabled more citizens to participate than ever before. Particularly, young voters are more likely to register and vote on Election Day itself, perhaps they didn’t plan ahead but they still participated. To me, that really underscored that regardless of all the noise or the political machinery at the moment, if you have fair, accessible, secure voting laws in place, more people will vote and more people will be heard.

EM: Your opponent in this election is an election denier, what harm could she do if she actually gets into office?

JB: I think the harm that election deniers could do in any office, but particularly in the office of Secretary of State, is three-fold. Number one, they could change the rules of the game or make policies that are more confusing, making it more challenging to actually run elections themselves: cutting funding, not supporting our clerks, those types of decisions.

Secondly, I think they could use this office as a bully pulpit to spread misinformation. In 2020, we were able to service trusted sources with reliable information, we were professionals doing our jobs. If you have partisans in these positions who will change the rules of the game and spread misinformation, that goes a far way in really misusing these positions to cause people to doubt the truth behind our elections.

Finally, and most perniciously, as the chief election officer, they could stand in the way of the certification of election results that they disagree with. That is perhaps the biggest danger, although there are many dangers, that you could actually have a secretary in 2024 who would stand in the way of the actual will of the voters coming to fruition, simply because they disagree with it.

And on all those fronts, my opponent, as well as those running for these offices in Nevada, Arizona and other states, has shown through their actions that that is the type of Secretary of State they will be. Someone who puts their agenda above the people’s agenda.

EM: Michigan has been ground zero for election denialism. If elected for another term, what can you do to prevent that from happening in Michigan?

JB: I think it’s really important to meet people where they are and talk to people who have been lied to and fooled by people they trust so that they have the truth and at least have access to information that debunks a lot of the conspiracy theories that they’ve been fed. That’s going to be part of the work that we have to do at the local level that I’m really excited to embrace and take on in the months ahead.

Secondly, we’re going to continue doing a good job running fair elections in our state. Misinformation and this cloud of noise that it brings has become an unfortunate new normal for us. We still have a job to do, and that is to make sure we run secure, accessible elections and that we begin preparing for the 2024 election cycle, making sure we’re protecting the system against efforts to change the rules from partisan lawmakers. We also have to continue making sure that we’re giving our clerks the resources they need to continue running fair and secure elections.

The good news is that we did that in 2020. Even in the midst of a pandemic, we were able to oversee and administer a high turnout, secure election. We’ve got the experience to do it again in future elections, but that work will begin right away.

Transcription: Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson uBio: Why I Got Into Politics

EM: We love to hear a little about people’s backstories. When and why did you get into politics?

JB: My parents were special education teachers, so at an early age I really saw the importance of making sure everybody has a voice and has access to their ability to succeed in an education system or in democracy.

When I began my career in Selma, Alabama, I was investigating hate groups and hate crimes for the Southern Poverty Law Center and saw firsthand how much our democracy is still under threat. So much has happened throughout our history to ensure that we have a democracy that welcomes every voice and ensures every vote is counted, but there is still unfinished business that needs to be taken care of in order to ensure those ideals of democracy are real for everyone.

For me, I wanted to be the state’s chief election officer. I didn’t necessarily want to run for office but I did want to serve in this position because I’ve seen firsthand how these offices have a pivotal role in protecting and guarding the vote. Part of my work is to demonstrate how a Secretary of State could be above partisanship and simply just do the job with integrity, but also get voters to care about these positions so that we have more good people running for them, and also more people paying attention to the misuse of the position.

Transcription: Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on Fighting Trump’s Election Lies

EM: What effect has former President Trump’s claims of election fraud had on you personally, and your ability to recruit election workers for future elections?

JB: There’s a good side and a bad side to the impact of having a former president spread lies, not just about our election administration and procedures but about those who administer them, like myself.

One, it means more people are paying attention to these offices than ever before, and paying more attention to elections and election administration than ever before. That’s the good thing because when you actually look at the system, you see that it’s secure, that it’s accessible, that we have protocols in place to protect the integrity of our elections and that we’re professionals in running these elections. We are doing our job for all voters, not just one particular voter in one particular party.

All of that said, his attacks and his most ardent followers have created this strain on our work, whether it’s actual violence or threats of violence, or harassment and requests for duplicative, meaningless information. A lot of the misinformation has metastasized to people trying to interfere with our ability to run future elections. Until there is real accountability of the people who are spreading those lies, from the former president on down, we’re going to continue seeing these tactics as an effort to deter people from participating and make it harder for us to ensure that people vote and that those votes are counted.

We’re always going to stand guard over that process, but we certainly can’t underestimate the detrimental and really challenging impact that the former president’s lies and misinformation have had on our democracy.

EM: In 2020, a local canvassing board in Michigan almost prevented the certification of the presidential election results. How can you, and Michigan in general, prevent this from happening in future elections?

JB: First of all, we have the benefit of having successfully overcome those challenges in 2020 under our belt. We know how important it is to engage clerks and people in the process of standing guard with us over our elections. The fact that hundreds of people showed up to demand certification of the election and of their votes in 2020 was really the turning point that enabled us to protect those voices. I’ll always be proud to stand with those folks, but even chief election officers can’t save democracies on their own. We need the voters to stand with us, that’s what prevailed in 2020 and that’s what will prevail again in 2024; thousands of people signing up to be poll workers and others signing up to be observers, letting us know of any disruptions so we can stop them. Law enforcement working with us at the local level to ensure the law is enforced and making sure that if people break the law through intimidating voters, they’re held accountable. All of those partnerships and all of that teamwork have really flourished since 2020, putting us in an even better position in 2024 to protect against future election subversion.

EM: As you know, Michigan has an abortion rights ballot initiative, it was almost knocked off the ballot by several GOP election commissioners but the Michigan Supreme Court allowed it to stay on. What is the importance of this ballot initiative and what does it say about the process that it was almost knocked off?

JB: Certainly, Michigan citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms are actually on the ballot this year. Voters will be given an opportunity when they vote to amend our state constitutions, to instill in it expanded voting rights protections and reproductive freedom for every citizen. It’s really critical that people understand the impact of their vote, that it’s not just about voting for candidates but it’s also about voting for policies that will protect and directly impact their lives and their rights.

What we also saw as the effort unfolded to get these proposals on the ballot was that state officials — particularly members of the State Board of Canvassers, who have a ministerial role to look at signatures or votes and affirm the will of the people — stood in the way of that process simply because they didn’t like the content of those positions. In that case, if the State Board of Canvassers fails to certify an election or fails to certify a ballot initiative, which they have a legal responsibility to do, we will go to court and the Michigan Supreme Court will ensure the law is followed.

Ultimately, at the state level, as long as we have officials in place willing to enforce the law, efforts of partisans to stand in the way of people’s voices won’t come to fruition. They certainly created a lot of confusion and chaos around the process itself, which one could argue is part of the strategy.

EM: Right now, Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature is preventing any further changes in election law. If that wasn’t an obstacle, what further changes would you want to see in the election system that would make it better, easier and more secure?

JB: One of the things I’ve seen as a long-time election policy advocate and now as the Secretary of State is that policies are one thing, but you need the funding and the personnel to bring them to fruition, to actually make sure that they work. A lot of times, we see lawmakers passing laws like they did recently to allow the pre-processing of absentee ballots prior to Election Day without any funding attached to it to enable us to actually hire people to do that pre-processing.

The bottom line is we need a sustained source of funding and resources for elections are going to come to fruition. At the top of my list is to ensure that we have a steady stream of funding, not just from the state but from the federal government as well. Secondly, we have more protections for our election workers, so that they know when they do endure threats, there will be strength behind them, protecting them and ensuring consequences for those who are threatening them for simply doing their jobs. Finally, we need to ensure policies both increase access to the vote and protect the security of the process. We really have policies in place that do both of those things here in Michigan, it is about ensuring that they are fully funded and able to come to fruition for every voter. We will continue to see an expansion of people participating in our elections with those policies in place and with the resources to administer them.

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