Jocelyn Benson is Michigan’s first Democratic secretary of state in over 20 years. She’s taking office after voters made sweeping changes in the 2018 midterms to how Michiganders will vote and how their districts will be drawn.
Her speech was the shortest out of all the speakers on the dais last Tuesday when she took her oath of office. She called it a “new day” for democracy in Michigan, and pledged to take the state from “worst to first in transparency, ethics, and accountability.”
Benson comes into her role as Michigan’s chief election officer credentialed, as an author of a book on election law and former dean of Wayne State Law School.
She was elected as part of the state’s first majority female-ticket for statewide offices, and alongside propositions 2 and 3; two 2018 ballot initiatives turned laws that significantly restructure access to voting and how congressional and state legislative districts will be drawn.
The proposals included early and absentee voting, voter registration and election audits. In an interview Benson said she was excited to take office after voters passed the initiatives.
“Well I’m absolutely thrilled that I get to take office at this unique moment in our democracy, with all of these initiatives that have just been passed into law.”
She continued, “I’m ready to make sure we’re implementing each of those changes with an eye towards making it easier to vote, harder to cheat, protecting the access of the process and the security of the process.”
Benson said her role supervising the roll out of these reforms will be informed by her work with national election security experts, consultation with other secretaries of state who have implemented similar reforms, and by working closely with clerks and local election officials.
“We’re in a great position to be ready for 2020 with the most robust elections that we’ve ever seen in this state because of these initiatives and these new reforms that will be in law.”
Benson breaks down her task reducing the vulnerability of elections in Michigan into four main categories: securing data of voter registration, making sure ballots are secure, ensuring machines are accurately counting ballots, and protecting the transmission of data from machines to tally points.
All of these things, she views as achievable with the help of risk-limiting post election audits, counsel from an election security task force as well as use of technology because “you have to consistently stay ahead of emerging threats, as well as those we know of,” said Benson.
She’s beginning her her term after several bills attempting to modify propositions 2 and 3 as well as remove her office’s oversight of campaign finance died during December’s lame duck session.
Another limiting how many signatures can be collected from a single distirct for petition ballot drives was signed into law by Governor Snyder during his last days in office. But, Benson says she’s hopeful that she’ll find common ground with lawmakers in the Republican majority Statehouse.
“I’m optimistic based on my conversations with the legislators both during lame duck and now as secretary of state that we will find a lot of opportunities to collaborate and move forward in concert in a non-partisan way, in a bipartisan way.”
Benson said she hopes she’ll be able to change Michigan’s reputation, by doing things like incentivizing lawmakers to willingly disclose their finances and extending the reach of the Freedom of Information Act to the Governor’s office.
Currently the Center for Public Integrity ranks Michigan last out of all 50 states in government transparency and accountability.
Benson, sees her mandate as flipping the script in Michigan by doing things like working with the legislature to pass legislation that requires officials to disclose their private finances, and until then providing stopgap incentives for lawmakers to voluntarily do so.
“When people are spending money to influence our votes, our elections, or our elected officials the public should know about it. So, with that in mind, my job will be to work to incentivize and provide meaningful ways for the public to get that information.”
She’s beginning her tenure as secretary of state echoing the Governor’s inagural message of building bridges and working across partisan lines.
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