Around midday on a crisp Monday eight days before the 2018 midterm elections, Michigan Secretary of State candidate Jocelyn Benson was methodically pitching herself to a selection of potential voters at a coffee shop on Livernois Avenue in Detroit. Benson, 41, nearly always wears blue while campaigning, and her royal-hued dress seemed to glow as she swept the room.
“I’m running to shorten our wait times and to protect democracy,” Benson explained, her tone businesslike, to a dreadlocked 22-year-old woman who goes by Fey. “The secretary of state oversees all of our elections, so my goal is to make Michigan a place where it’s easier to vote and where more people have access to the ballot box.” After politely shifting the conversation to net neutrality, Fey pulled out a deck of Tarot cards.
“Do you want to draw a card?” she asked Benson.
Benson eyed the deck hesitantly. “All right,” she agreed.
“Oh, that’s a very good one,” Fey exclaimed, flashing “The Wheel of Fortune” card, which symbolizes change or destiny.
“Oh! Well, that’s encouraging.”
“Yeah. It’s like, ‘Take a spin on the Wheel of Fortune!’” Fey said, putting on a booming announcer voice. “You know? It’s a wild card.”
The exact role of secretary of state varies across the country, but the person in that job is largely responsible for making sure elections run smoothly, which gives them a fair amount of power that, in the past, has generally flown well under the radar. Though the secretary of state doesn’t pass laws and has additional responsibilities outside of running elections, it’s a relatively simple fact that the person who decides polling place locations, maintains voter rolls, promotes and implements election-related legislation, and helps determine the state’s election security measures can have significant influence in a system where a citizen’s right to vote is not guaranteed.
While several other Democratic secretary of state candidates in swing states are locked in tighter races, Benson is polling four points ahead of her Republican opponent, according to one poll, and 11 points ahead according to another. Name recognition for both candidates is quite low, however, and 17 percent of likely voters say they’re undecided. Besides, it’s bad luck these days to trust polls. “The only poll that matters is the one on election day,” Benson repeated like a mantra (though her campaign has run internal polling). And yet, while her political future will technically be determined by voters on Tuesday (who have in the past proven themselves unimpressed by hyper-qualified women candidates), it’s hard to imagine Jocelyn Benson’s destiny going anything other than exactly as planned.
When Benson speaks, her face scrunches earnestly and her hands punch the air in a precise, orderly rhythm, as if performing a sacred dance titled “Woman Who Knows What She’s Doing.” Benson has a master’s degree from Oxford University, where she researched the international sociological implications of the neo-Nazi movement, and a law degree from Harvard Law School, during which she worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and, upon graduating, clerked in Detroit for Judge Damon Keith, a civil rights icon. She wrote a book about the Secretary of State’s office in 2010 (which is referenced on the Wikipedia page for the role), the same year she narrowly lost out on the position to Republican Ruth Johnson, and in 2012, at age 35, became the youngest woman in U.S. history to lead an accredited law school after being named Dean of Wayne State University Law School. She recently served as CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality and sits on the boards of the Southern Poverty Law Center and iCivics, a nonprofit founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Her list of credentials is so long that they, as demonstrated, don’t fit in a single paragraph, and she seems to have mastered the art of speaking the absolute maximum number of words before taking a breath. She can passionately discuss the benefits of risk-limiting post-election audits until your eyes water. She was forcefully endorsed by the Detroit Free Press, whose last endorsement for the role eight years ago went to the aforementioned Johnson. In 2015, she became the second-youngest woman inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame (the youngest is Serena Williams). She ran the Boston Marathon while she was eight months pregnant. She tells a story that begins with her love for the HBO drama The Newsroom and ends with her becoming close friends with actor Amanda Seyfried, who came to Michigan to campaign for her. In her spare time, she is working on a novel.
To say Jocelyn Benson is prepared to step into the role of secretary of state in Michigan is perhaps an understatement. She seems fairly ready to run a country, or a mission to Pluto; the overwhelming tangle of election security and voting rights challenges facing the country in 2018 are tightly organized by bullet-point in her brain. But Benson is not the only formidable Democratic candidate hoping to reclaim the office—across the formerly sleepy, bureaucratic landscape of secretary of state races, Democratic candidates around the U.S. are mounting election security and anti-voter suppression campaigns in a political environment where those goals have become increasingly polarized by party, and where those threats may well impact their own chances of being elected. The secretary of state race, though still far from a marquee focus, is beginning to outgrow its tedious reputation. As many have noticed over the past few years, democracy is only boring when it’s functioning properly.
“As a voting rights lawyer, I started to notice that we don’t pay a lot of attention to Secretary of State races until something goes wrong,” Benson told a group of Seventh-day Adventist pastors assembled at an Olive Garden in Livonia, Michigan, our second stop after the Detroit coffee shop (this was scheduled as a “lunch,” but we marched on with the day’s schedule before the food was ordered, subsisting on a diet of democracy and Sun Chips). “Until a Secretary of State in Georgia tries to block 53,000 voter registrations from being processed,” she continued evenly. “Or a Secretary of State in Florida blocks a recount before it goes through, leading to Bush v. Gore and the election of a president. Or in Ohio, when Ken Blackwell in 2004 didn’t put enough voting machines in Cleveland or other urban areas, leading to long wait times.”
Benson says she was inspired to run for the office again when she found her husband’s ballot—he was deployed in Afghanistan during the 2012 election—returned and stamped “undeliverable” after election day. As secretary of state, she says she plans to create an election security task force, promote campaign finance reform, professionalize the state’s poll worker force, and protect voting rights, including a push to make voter deception practices illegal. In the words of her oft-repeated refrain, she wants to make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat.”
“One of the things I love about this office is that it's very focused,” she told me. In other words, she doesn’t have to take a position on partisan flashpoints (aside from, you know, voting). When one potential voter wondered whether Michigan was to become a “sanctuary state,” she mentioned her general interest in inclusion, then warmly recommended he take it up with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer.
Though Benson is clearly particularly invested in the idea, her framing of the secretary of state office as one of the country’s most important underlines a glaringly obvious point—that without fair and secure elections, no other progressive objective is possible. And from the president’s false claim that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s disbanded commission on voter fraud, the Trump administration has brought an unusual degree of attention to the office of the secretary of state.
“I think the secretary of state's office is one of the most powerful offices, but it's not a sexy office,” said Ellen Kurz, CEO of iVote, an advocacy group that’s raised $6 million this cycle to help elect Democratic secretaries of state in the mostly-swing states of Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, and has pushed hard and rather successfully to get their message out. (The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, affiliated with the national party, is also raising money for those states’ races, though they’ve replaced New Mexico, which already has a Democratic incumbent, with Georgia.) Currently, Republicans hold 29 secretary of state offices while Democrats hold 17; a full 27 are up for reelection this year, and Democrats could reasonably hope to gain as many as eight seats, according to Governing magazine’s ratings. The winners will be charged with overseeing the 2020 presidential election, which will mean helping to make basic but important decisions like who stays on the voter rolls or how long to keep polling places open.
“We have the GOP actively trying to stop certain people from voting. That's just absolutely clear to anybody who's paying attention,” Kurz said. “Republicans have understood the importance of the office and they have funded it, and so that’s where iVote came in.”
For their part, the Democratic National Committee says they are re-dedicated to the cause of down-ballot races, though they have continued to struggle notably with fundraising following the 2016 election. "This cycle, the DNC has made unprecedented investments in state parties and campaigns to help elect Democrats up and down the ticket, including Democrats running for secretary of state,” DNC deputy communications director Sabrina Singh said in a written statement. “Secretaries of state are on the front lines of ensuring that a state's election process is fair and accessible for all, and that's why we are working to elect Democrats who will safeguard that right so that every voice is heard."
Benson, whose first campaign was during the Tea Party wave in 2010, described it as “the polar opposite of this year in a lot of ways. Politically a polar opposite, but it was also a year where people weren't paying attention to the secretary of state races as much.”
“I think from 2000 to about even 2010 or 2012, Republicans did a much better job of putting secretary of state races in the spotlight,” Natalie Tennant, Manager of State Advocacy at the Brennan Center for Justice, said in an interview.
“I was secretary of state in West Virginia for eight years, from 2009 to 2017,” Tennant added, “and especially early on, I can remember we would be pushing and trying to talk to anyone who would talk to us and say, these secretary of state races are so important—and they’re so important in off-year elections, too, because then that secretary would be in place during the presidential election. But, boy, it seems like this off-year election is as strong as a presidential election.”
“This excitement reminds me of ’07, ’08, during the caucuses,” said Deidre DeJear, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state in Iowa, in an interview last month. If she wins her race, which has been rated a toss-up by Governing, DeJear, 32—who is part of a wave of first-time woman candidates running in 2018—will be the first black candidate ever elected to statewide office in Iowa.
"The secretary of state's office is one of the most powerful offices, but it's not a sexy office"
“It looks like a presidential year in our state,” she said, echoing Tennant’s observation. “I believe every election should look like this.”
Still, the office of Secretary of State is not particularly well-understood by the public. Only 47 of the 50 states have the office (and only 35 of those are elected positions) and the position’s responsibilities extend beyond overseeing elections in slightly varying and often mundane ways, such as commissioning notaries public or registering trademarks; a major point of contention in the Michigan race is precisely how each candidate might improve services and shorten wait times at local Secretary of State branch offices. In some other states, the office of the secretary of state has added weight—in Arizona, for example, where Democrat and state Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs is polling six points behind a self-funded billionaire with far-right leanings and zero political experience, the secretary of state is next in line for the governorship; in Ohio, where Democratic state Rep. Kathleen Clyde is in a toss-up race with Republican state Sen. Frank LaRose, the secretary of state has a seat on the state’s redistricting commission.
Since the Shelby County v. Holder decision dissolved a key portion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 on the implied assertion that racism is no longer a problem, the federal Commission on Civil Rights recently noted in a report that at least 23 states have put in place new restrictions on voting, including voter purges, polling place closures, voter ID laws and slashing early voting. As inflated fantasies of individual voter fraud abound, various Republican officials have openly admitted the political benefits of restrictive voter ID laws. With perhaps the most publicity the role has had in recent memory, Georgia has been plastered across the news amid revelations that an eye-popping 53,000 mostly-minority voter registrations have been placed on hold under the state’s “exact-match” policy, which requires the name on a person's voter registration to exactly match the name on their ID. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp is one of three—including the aforementioned Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Ohio Secretary of State John Husted—who are holding that position while running for higher office, effectively overseeing their own elections.
In Texas, faulty voting machines that literally switch people’s votes (officials have blamed user errors) have been left untouched over the years by officials, while North Dakota’s Native American communities, whose votes make up a crucial portion of Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s coalition, are spending significant resources to comply with a law recently upheld by the Supreme Court that requires voters to register a mailing address (many who live on tribal lands rely on P.O. boxes). Meanwhile, voting machines across the country remain alarmingly vulnerable to hacking, and while officials have found no evidence that vote counts were changed last time around, it’s also true, as a recent New York Times Magazine report asserted, that no one has really looked.
Election security and voter suppression “kind of live in the same space, because the concept around voter ID was to secure our elections,” explained Iowa candidate Deidre DeJear. “Does that secure our elections? No, it doesn't. And at the time that [incumbent Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate] was commissioning this law, we had foreign adversaries that were trying to impede on our voter process.” Part of the challenge in running for an office like secretary of state is learning how to make deliberately confusing things sound simple, and in Iowa, a state with a low minority population where support for the state’s voter ID law is high, DeJear’s campaign is advocating for educating voters—gently.
“There has been minimal education around these changes,” DeJear said of the state’s 2017 voter identification law, which has been partially halted by the state Supreme Court. “And so how we overcome that is not by alienating voters, not by telling them that their decision to support this bill is right or not, but it's more about, ‘We want to let you know that the voting process has changed in our state and this is how it has changed. These are the things that you need to consider when you vote.’”
It’s overly simplistic to paint all Republican secretaries of state as working to hinder voting rights, contrasted neatly with their Democratic counterparts—Colorado, under Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams, is considered a model for election security and voter access, while Kentucky’s Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergen Grimes has been accused by multiple individuals of improperly accessing voter data (she denies this).
Michigan, meanwhile, is not typically listed among the country’s most egregious voter suppression projects, though that’s not really saying much—Republican Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a pair of voter ID bills in 2012, but the state, once a leader in expanding access to the polls, has not made voting particularly easy in the 23 years the secretary of state’s office has been under Republican control. And with Benson’s eye on the prize, a lot could change.
“We have not enacted no-reason absentee [voting], we don't have early voting, we don't have the types of security measures that other states have, we don't have online voter registration,” Benson listed (legislation allowing the latter is expected to go into effect next year). In 2008, Democrats and Barack Obama’s campaign sued the Michigan Republican Party and others following a report that officials planned to challenge the eligibility of voters with foreclosed homes; the Republicans denied the plan and the lawsuit was settled with a signed agreement between the two parties. During the 2016 election, which Donald Trump won in Michigan by around 10,000 votes, over 80 voting machines in Detroit malfunctioned, according to officials (new machines were recently put in place), leading to ballot discrepancies. Poorly-trained poll workers contributed to the problem, according to the Brennan Center. This time around, a controversial ban on straight-ticket voting that will take effect in Michigan during this election is expected to cause confusion, as well.
Though it’s far from assured that the “blue wave” Democrats are hoping for will actually arrive on election day, the Midwest has been presented as promising ground for Democratic gains, and Benson is one of several statewide Democratic candidates in Michigan who’s been polling ahead. On the ballot as well are several initiatives that would involve the Secretary of State’s office—proposal 2, which the secretary of state would implement, seeks to end gerrymandering by creating an independent redistricting commission, and proposal 3, which would amend the state constitution to reinstate straight-ticket voting and allow other voting reforms that Benson has championed (though she assured the group of pastors at Olive Garden that she would personally be voting against another ballot initiative that seeks to legalize recreational marijuana).
Mary Treder Leng, Benson’s Republican opponent, has voiced her opposition to proposals 2 and 3, framing the attempt to expand voting rights as an attack on freedom-loving Michiganders. Treder Leng—who has, like most Republicans in Michigan with political ambitions, won the financial support of members of the DeVos family—has emphasized the importance of purging voter rolls, saying on the radio that had outgoing Secretary of State Ruth Johnson not taken 1.2 million voters off the rolls, “this state here would not be red, nor would we have President Trump in our office today.” During their recent televised debate, Benson also nodded toward the fact that earlier this year Treder Leng co-sponsored a screening of Death of a Nation, a “documentary” equating liberalism to Nazism by Dinesh D’Souza, who plead guilty to campaign finance violations in 2014 and was later pardoned by Trump (the Secretary of State’s office in Michigan oversees campaign finance laws).
Treder Leng, despite the DeVos’s support, has been significantly outraised by Benson, who had pulled in a startling $1.1 million as of mid-September. In a twist that underlines how far the financial balance has shifted to Democratic candidates this election cycle, she accused Benson during the debate of taking money from shadowy outside groups, ostensibly referring to iVote (“I don’t think she understands what independent expenditures are,” Benson remarked to me in the car between stops). Treder Leng also sought to connect Benson to a very real and alarming election fraud scheme for which two Michigan Democratic party operatives were convicted in 2010, one of whom had volunteered for Benson’s campaign prior to the allegations. (“Even if he was still working on my campaign, we would have fired him, we would have fully supported any investigation,” Benson told me. “It was terrible what they did.”)
The day moved quickly. After briefly paying respects to Bishop P.A. Brooks, a prominent leader in the Church of Christ in God and a supporter of Benson’s campaign, we stopped by her handsome brick house in Detroit’s affluent Sherwood Forest neighborhood to drop something off for the nanny (her son is now two) and then moved on to Oakland County, where we visited an office for the state Democratic party.
“When we see and lament the challenges that are happening across our country, and even here in our state that we’ve experienced firsthand, from the water crisis in Flint, to the environmental crises around our state, to the inequality in our schools, to the challenges of driving on the roads, our ability to turn all of that around starts in eight days,” Benson told a group of about 20 phone banking volunteers. Applause rang out. An older male volunteer told Benson she was beautiful; she laughed politely.
“Are you worried about violence at the polls next week?” another volunteer asked. Some people had aired concerns while she was canvassing, she said.
“I’m always worried,” Benson replied calmly. “I started my career investigating violence and hate crimes in the south and throughout the country, and I grew up in Pittsburgh, by the way, so I think that’s an unfortunate reality of our world, and it always has been. But our democracy is a beautiful way of protecting against violence, and ensuring that people’s voices are really what determines who has power in our democracy, and so I believe in that.
“Look,” she added, “When I think about violence, I think about the people who stood at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 and faced violence so that everyone could have the right to vote. We all need to be courageous and brave in times like these. We’ve gotta be undeterred.” A few minutes later, the phone banking resumed.
Monday's campaign activities ended with a crowded meet and greet for Democratic candidates in Macomb County, one of the famed working class suburbs that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. A Republican campaign tracker (someone employed by the opposing party to film candidates in case they say something politically damaging) typed on his phone boredly, his camera firmly off, as Benson spoke animatedly about her history of “setting goals and meeting them.”
In the parking lot after her speech, as the setting sun turned our concrete surroundings a pleasant shade of golden-peach, Benson and two campaign staffers laughed. “He gave up on us a long time ago,” she remarked dryly. Though, as she’d mentioned, she began her career investigating white supremacists groups at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Benson is running a campaign that has been deliberately sapped of high-pitch emotional appeals, aggressive anti-Trump rhetoric, or overt progressivism.
“It can sometimes be isolating, because I'm not a traditional candidate,” Benson said, turning to face me in the back seat as her deputy campaign manager, a 22-year-old Harvard graduate named Sally, drove us back towards downtown Detroit. “I'm not always going to be the firebrand that says ‘down with Republicans,’ because I don't believe that. I think we're all in this together, I think no party has all the solutions—that's why I love democracy, because everyone gets their voice heard.
“But I'm not running for governor,” she added. “I'm running to run our elections. And I think that's exactly the type of leader you want.”
Benson’s brand of aggressive aisle-crossing competency stands in somewhat surreal contrast to the broader political reality. A few days before I joined her on the campaign trail, explosive devices were sent to various high-profile targets of Trump’s rhetoric and two black senior citizens were murdered by a racist gunman at a Kentucky grocery store. One day before I arrived, Brazil elected a militant fascist endorsed by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and the following day, the President would announce he was sending 5,200 U.S. troops—no, 15,000 troops—to guard the border from the same “invasion” of impoverished asylum-seeking refugees that had inspired the massacre of Jewish congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday. On my way to Detroit, a man in the San Jose airport was yelling at an airline representative in the ticketing line as his wife sobbed. “He told us to ‘go back to our country,’” the man was saying, referring to another customer who’d evidently fled the scene. “I am an American citizen! I have my papers!”
It may feel like we’re in the early chapters of a poorly-written novel about the apocalyptic implosion of Western civilization, but that is almost certainly not the book Benson is writing. One could make the argument—as she implicitly does—that this particular officeholder, the one who certifies elections, needs to be seen as credible by the widest possible swath of constituents. And though the question lingers as to whether credibility still exists on a bipartisan scale, her campaign appears poised for success. As long as voters remember her name—and what “secretary of state” means.
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Ellie Shechet is a reporter living in Brooklyn.
Update 11/2/18: This article has been updated to more accurately represent Benson's use of campaign funds.