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Jocelyn Benson: What to know about Democratic Michigan secretary of state

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

Jocelyn Benson has spent most of her first term as secretary of state in the national spotlight.

She oversaw the 2020 Michigan election that became the central argument from supporters of former President Donald Trump that the election was stolen. Benson has said the election was the most secure in state history.

Relate

She was tasked with overseeing implementation of an absentee voting expansion allowing any voter to mail in or drop off their ballots, and preemptively mailed voters applications during the 2020 race while the pandemic was raging. 

She faces Republican challenger Kristina Karamo as she seeks a second four-year term on Nov. 8.

About

Benson, 44, of Detroit, was elected in 2018. She previously ran for the office in 2010, losing to former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

Before winning office, served as CEO and executive director of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality and is the former dean of Wayne State University Law School. She wrote a book studying the role of secretaries of state in enforcing voting laws and overseeing elections. 

Benson attended Wellesley College, Oxford University and Harvard Law School. She has a husband and son.

Background

As a candidate, Benson promised that customers at branch offices would wait 30 minutes or less before being helped. In office, she shifted to an appointment-based system during the pandemic and her administration kept the practice even as society reopened. 

This year, secretary of state records show visits to branch offices are typically completed in less than 20 minutes, and the percentage of transactions that are conducted online or at self-service stations has increased to 60 percent from 28 percent in 2018.

Benson oversaw the 2020 election, the state’s first since no-reason absentee voting was allowed as part of a 2018 constitutional amendment. She used $4.2 million in federal funding to send all registered voters absentee ballot applications, a decision that was criticized by Republicans but upheld in court. 

Issues

Going into the 2022 cycle, Benson has said the biggest challenge now is disinformation surrounding Michigan’s election process, despite numerous audits and investigations confirming President Joe Biden’s victory.

Benson paints the race between herself and her opponent as a choice between someone who would uphold the will of voters and those who would undermine valid election results: “It is not hyperbolic to say that the future of our democracy is on the ballot this fall,” she told Bridge.

Benson has also touted her record shortening wait times, expanding online services for Secretary of State transactions and partnering with grocery stores to install service stations in the buildings.

Controversies

Benson’s decision to spend federal funding mailing absentee ballot applications unsolicited to voters was controversial among Republicans, who say it helped stoke Democratic turnout and may have jeopardized election security. 

During the pandemic, Michigan drivers experienced significant backlogs when attempting to renew or obtain new licenses, registration or vehicle plates. An appointment-only system implemented during the pandemic was unpopular among Republicans and some Democrats.  

Her opponent, Karamo, has questioned Benson’s competence and dismissal of concerns about election security, saying that “just creates more suspicion” about what transpired. 

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