As a law professor, Jocelyn Benson literally wrote the book on best practices of Secretaries of State nationwide.
Elected in November to that post in Michigan, Benson faces her first test Tuesday, when more than 500 jurisdictions affecting 17 percent of the state’s registered voters host elections to decide millages and other ballot questions.
Bridge recently discussed how she’s prepared in a wide-ranging interview. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Bridge: What’s keeping you up at night ahead of the May 7 election?
Benson: The decentralization of the process and the hope that we can create some sort of basic statewide standards. The needs of our clerks vary significantly from community to community, and that's in part why I convened this election modernization commission that has folks from other states ... to advise us on what they learned so that we're not recreating the wheel.
I called all 83 (county) clerks in my first month to check in with them on this question and learn the unique challenges they face in their communities. (I’m) trying to learn about all of the local challenges and develop policies that will hopefully address them and educational materials that will fill all the gaps.
Bridge: This is the first election since the implementation of Promote the Vote, the constitutional amendment that voters approved in November to expand voting rights. What are the concerns of local clerks?
Benson: It runs the gamut. A lot of it's about resources. (There is a) fear of how are we going to implement these changes? How am I going to stay open on eight hours on the weekend, which is part of the requirement as well, when it's just me? For a lot of local clerks, (it) is just them.
In larger municipalities, there's more (staff), but our election administrators across the board are severely under-resourced. So any changes to election laws and additional requirements yield a question of how are we going to meet this requirement?
Bridge: Can the state provide support to local clerks?
Benson: We have a 30-person team in our Bureau of Elections, so we're also severely understaffed and under-resourced. But that said, we are working with the Bureau (of Elections) to improve the educational materials for the clerks themselves and to explore ways to standardize poll worker training, so that clerks have that support and to help recruit talent.
Also explore legal changes that will lessen the burden on the clerk: Right now, the law says you can only count ballots on Election Day. So if you have the option with security measures in place to start counting the day before Election Day, do we want to allow that for clerks in our more populous areas that may need that extra time?
That's the type of stuff that I'm both hearing and am working through. (I’m) trying to be a partner to all of our clerks and navigate through the minefield of Lansing to help get those resources to our local clerks as we prepare (to implement the new amendment).
Bridge: Unlike other states, Michigan’s elections are run by hundreds of local clerks, rather than counties or the state. Do you ever get frustrated at how decentralized our election system is?
Benson: I think it's for good reason: To protect against anyone having an unduly large role. I'm very personally committed to nonpartisan election administration and fairness, and all kinds of good government principles, but I believe in checks and balances regardless. So I think it's important to have that decentralization to provide that check on any one entity being too influential, and also to allow for local control.
My role is being a connector in sharing best practices, and one of support for our clerks. And where necessary to really implement some high standards of expectation for performance, so that if there are people who fall short of those standards, we have some kind of metric for measuring their success.
Bridge: What are the biggest challenges ahead with the amendments to enhance voter rights and allow a citizen commission to draw district lines?
Benson: The success of the implementation of both will depend in part on our success in letting voters know about (them) so that they can take advantage of those new rights, and we see an increase in turnout and as a result.
That's one thing that we've really tried to change in this office, take less of a passive role in communicating with voters and more proactive role. We've been holding town halls around the state, and we've identified the 100 precincts with the lowest turnout in our state. I am planning to go there over the next several months and talk with citizens there about what we can do better, make sure they know about these new rights and try to get a sense of what it would take to (increase voter turnout.)