Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson spoke to over 30 University of Michigan Law School students and faculty at Hutchins Hall on Monday to discuss the 2020 election, constitutional voting rights and new election legislation ahead of the 304th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution this coming Friday.
The event was moderated by Law Professor Richard Friedman, who began by introducing Benson and the role the Secretary of State plays in upholding the Constitution and protecting the right to vote.
“There’s no issue more important than the right to vote, (which is) at the heart of democracy,” Friedman said. “It’s crucial to ensure that those who are eligible to vote can do so, (and) that those who are not eligible cannot … the votes are counted completely and accurately, and that there’s broad and shared trust in the result. It’s not an easy task.”
Benson spoke about the 2020 election and the importance of trusting the electoral system. The 2020 presidential election in Michigan, which had the highest voter turnout in the state’s history with over 5.5 million, was marked by debunked claims that the election was fraudulent by former President Donald Trump and his lawyers. In a press conference shortly after the election, Benson called the lawsuits “frivolous” and reiterated the security of the voting process.
Benson described her early career experiences as a hate crime investigator in Montgomery, Ala. After witnessing just how contingent voting rights were on everyday people taking steps to ensure that the constitutional right to vote is protected, she decided to study election law.
“I really saw (in Montgomery) how our constitution and the principles of our democracy really are dependent upon people who are willing to stand up at any point…to ensure that those constitutional protections of one person one vote are protected under the law,” Benson said.
Benson continued by saying one of her main motivations as an election law attorney and secretary is making sure legal systems are set up to avoid partisan manipulation and unfair advantages in voting.
“If we could simply ensure that the legal process was set up to protect the promise of our democracy, then we would be in the best position to protect against political actors who throughout history have essentially tried to gain the system to further their own political goals and partisan agendas,” Benson said.
Benson said despite the controversies, the 2020 election was the most successful election in Michigan history.
“In addition to being extremely accessible, (the election) was extremely secure,” Benson said. “There was a lot of effort going into making sure the mechanics of our system, the infrastructure of our system, whether it be machines or drop boxes or any other transaction processing voter file(s), was secured.”
Benson also noted one of the key successes of the 2020 election was the increase in absentee voting, with 3.1 million voters mailing in their ballots for the November election. Benson said this was due to a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018 that allowed for same-day voter registration and no-reason absentee voting.
Benson also credited developments her administration made at the local level to ensure that all absentees were counted. Benson said these developments included a ballot tracking system and working with post office officials to ensure that every vote was delivered and counted.
Benson then spoke about false claims of voter fraud, saying the attempts to undermine the validity of the election ultimately led to the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.
“Now, of course, as we work(ed) to protect the certification process from these attempts, and as we attempt(ed) to also ensure the electoral college votes went smoothly, what none of us could have anticipated was the tragedy in our U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.,” Benson said. “But that, indeed, was the culmination of weeks of misinformation, weeks of attempts to undermine the law to achieve some sort of political end.”
Benson said she is very concerned about the impact misinformation would have on the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election.
“The efforts to undermine our democracy really just began in the 2020 election, and I believe they’re going to move through the (20)22 to (20)24 election, and we need to be prepared for that,” Benson said.
Friedman began the Q&A session by asking whether Benson should run without a party affiliation since she wrote in her book, “Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process,” that the secretary of state is a non-partisan position.
“We do need to elect referees of our democracy, secretaries of states, in a system that ensures they are not beholden to partisan vendors or political payback,” Benson replied. “What I found is that the actual method… the process of electing these individuals, is not as important as electing good individuals, whether they’re Republicans … or Democrats like myself … Democracy prevailed because you had good people on both sides of the aisle, willing to do the right thing.”
Law student Jacqueline Diggs said that as a Michigan voter in the 2020 election, she received an automatic application to vote absentee.
“As you know, (receiving an automatic absentee application in the mail) was very contentious,” Diggs said. “Are there additional education measures for current voters?”
Benson said while she was disheartened by the criticisms of sending automatic absentee applications, she would continue to advocate for further educating Michigan residents on their voting rights.
“Everything we did (to increase voter turnout)… None of it mattered if voters didn’t know about it,” Benson said.
Benson finished the talk by saying that everyone in the audience had a responsibility to fight to protect election rights.
“Democracy prevailed in 2020 because people stood up and demanded that it did, and it will prevail in the future if we do the same thing,” Benson said. “But now it’s not the time to sit down and say, ‘We did it, we’re good, let’s move on to other things.’ Every issue you believe in, every policy that you fight for, all is based on our ability to have access to our democracy.”
Daily Staff Reporter Shannon Stocking contributed to reporting.
Daily Staff Reporter George Weykamp can be reached at [email protected] .