Jocelyn Benson wrote the book on secretaries of state. She never saw this moment coming.

How the 2020 election is still shaping the battle for Michigan’s top elections officer

By: - August 20, 2022 3:06 am

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in Detroit May 17, 2022 | Ken Coleman

During her 2018 campaign for secretary of state, it was frequently pointed out in stump speeches that Democrat Jocelyn Benson “literally wrote the book about being a secretary of state.”

Benson’s book, “State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process,” was published in 2010 and elevated her as one of the foremost experts on the position.

That same year, Benson ran for the position she has long had her eye on, losing to Republican Ruth Johnson, who would go on to serve two terms and is now a state senator.

Once Johnson was term-limited out of the position in 2018, however, Benson made another run for the position, and won — making her Michigan’s secretary of state during what she called “a unique moment in our democracy” of attacks on our electoral process and a once in a lifetime pandemic upending branch office operations.

After polls had closed the night of Nov. 3, 2020, Benson held an Election Day press conference at Ford Field in Detroit.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson at Ford Field in Detroit, Nov. 3, 2020 | Andrew Roth

She had spent nearly a full year warning that Michigan could be among the last states in the nation to report their election results in 2020 due to an influx in absentee ballots after voters legalized no-reason early voting in 2018 — and that was before the pandemic.

Benson emphasized at the time that her office stood ready to combat disinformation about the election results, including if any candidates tried to declare victory prematurely or cried foul if the candidate that was initially ahead when in-person votes were being reported ended up trailing once absentee ballots were factored in.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who’s now running for governor, touted this strategy as an important aspect of the response to false claims about the election.

“The antidote to the lies is telling the truth. And she’s very good and articulate at it, and a voice of reason that Americans need right now,” Hobbs said. “We’re still in a really scary time where I think the future of free and fair elections in our country is uncertain. And she’s been a voice of reason.”

As Benson predicted, Trump spoke from the East Room of the White House on election night, as absentee ballots were still being counted, to prematurely declare victory and falsely claim that the election was being stolen from him, including in Michigan.

But, of course, that was just the start of Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the election, launching months of attacks on public officials, election administrators, and our institutions that culminated with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

Looking back, Benson said that the chaos that followed the 2020 presidential election was unlike anything she had imagined.

“I think at that time, it was impossible to truly know the depth to which individuals, failed candidates, political parties, would sink to nullify the will of the people,” Benson said. “Up until that point, we were prepared for false narratives to be promoted by candidates or their most ardent supporters, and we were prepared to counter that misinformation with the facts. But we underestimated just how far some were willing to go to undermine the very tenets and infrastructure of our entire American democracy.”

The pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021 | Alex Kent

Even during the months between the election and the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Benson said she continued to find herself shocked at the strategies being employed by former President Donald Trump and his supporters.

“We had a successful election with more people voting than ever before. We countered misinformation, and falsehoods leading up to election day to make sure citizens knew their options to vote and how to exercise them. But we significantly underestimated the post-election subversion attacks,” Benson said. “And up until the tragedy at our U.S. Capitol on Jan, 6, [2021,] I, and others, continued to underestimate those tactics. 

“After Jan. 6, I was done giving anyone the benefit of the doubt, because we saw that day just how far people were truly willing to go to stop the results of an accurate presidential election from coming to fruition. And our work now is to never be caught underestimating the foes to democracy again, and to instead be prepared for any potential tactic, maneuver, or strategy so that we can counter them effectively and continue protecting democracy against any foreign or domestic attacks in the future.”

Benson is now running for reelection this year and is expected to face in November Kristina Karamo, who has been endorsed by the Michigan Republican Party and will be officially nominated next week. 

Her expected nomination follows a pattern of 2020 election deniers running as the top elections official in key states, including Arizona, Minnesota and Nevada. That could have national implications for the 2024 presidential election.

“We are going to fire Jocelyn Benson for what she did to our election in Michigan,” Karamo said in an August 2021 tweet.

Karamo, who has accused Democrats of having a “satanic agenda,” was a poll worker in 2020 who contributed to the debunked claims of fraud, testifying to the state Senate that bags full of ballots had been dropped off at the former TCF Center overnight on Election Day and suggesting without evidence that Dominion Voting software had flipped votes from Trump to Biden across the state. More than 250 state and local audits have disproven such claims of election fraud.

Karamo received Trump’s endorsement, with the former president writing that Karamo is “strong on Crime, including the massive Crime of Election Fraud.” He held a fundraiser for her this week.

In the months after the election, the state faced numerous lawsuits seeking to overturn the results of the presidential race in Michigan, many based on similar debunked claims, prompting Benson to work closely with Attorney General Dana Nessel.

“What’s been so helpful to me is that she does understand the mechanics of election law, and of elections, so much better than, probably, any of her predecessors. This is not an office that she randomly selected. This was an office that she spent years preparing for,” Nessel said. “It puts me at ease, because we’ve done so much work together, and so many events together, and we’ve had to work together so much closer than a typical secretary of state and attorney general in any given state, given the constant attacks on our election.

“She’s obviously the chief elections officer, I’m the chief law enforcement officer, and that means that with our elections under siege, the two of us have had to work incredibly closely together. It is so fortuitous for us, and it’s such a great relief for me, that whenever we have anything going on, she’s sort of the captain in the storm.”

Karamo falsely claims the insurrection was a false flag operation, rails against premarital sex

Indeed, even outside of writing the book on secretaries of state, much of Benson’s career seems to have led her to serving in this position, at this moment.

She spent time living in Montgomery, Ala., where she worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center researching white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations.

“I became deeply rooted in the sacrifices that had been made in the past, and the courage that it took to protect and defend democracy throughout the history of our country, and that was foundational to my own growth professionally and choices in doing this work,” Benson said. “My feet are firmly planted in that history, and through that I’m firmly devoted to trying to match that courage and determination to meet any moment that’s thrown at us and doing what it takes to protect and defend every citizen’s vote and voice.”

Then, she worked as a summer associate for voting rights and election law at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

In the early 2000s, Benson served as the voting rights policy coordinator of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, where she worked on passing the federal Help America Vote Act.

Benson served with conservative former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the national board of directors of iCivics, served on the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Election Law, and founded the Michigan Center for Election Law.

In 2012, Benson became the youngest woman to lead a top 100 law school in the United States, becoming dean of Wayne State Law School.

Beginning in 2016, Benson served as CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, where she launched RISE to VOTE, an effort to register professional and college athletes to vote and to have those athletes encourage their fans to do the same.

What’s been so helpful to me is that she does understand the mechanics of election law, and of elections, so much better than, probably, any of her predecessors. This is not an office that she randomly selected. This was an office that she spent years preparing for. It puts me at ease, because we've done so much work together ... and we've had to work together so much closer than a typical secretary of state and attorney general in any given state, given the constant attacks on our election.

– Attorney General Dana Nessel

“I’m not a politician. I built a career in many different industries, working in sports, working in academics, working in law, working in the nonprofit sector, now working in government. So I am inherently not seeing this office as a stepping stone or seeing it as a political one at all,” Benson said. “I see it as an extension of work that I’ve done in various different industries to protect the vote. And so my mind and my thought process is always firmly grounded in in that sense of mission and purpose.”

That diversity of experiences related to elections makes her uniquely qualified to meet the current moment, Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said.

“I think what is so refreshing about Secretary Benson is that she has deep legal knowledge, and also has worked in voting rights for a long time prior to being Secretary of State. But because of her research, and her book, she also had a keen understanding of the role of secretary of state, and she has brought that expertise to new secretaries. And I think that has made all of us do our job better,” Bellows said.

Benson said that getting to apply the lessons she learned from all of those experiences to the job of secretary of state has been rewarding.

“I’ve always believed that secretaries of state have the most influential and impactful role in protecting our democracy and ensuring that our systems are accessible and secure. So to be able to be playing that role, to do this job, at a time where, for our country, the challenges facing our democracy are among the greatest in modern history, it has felt like a culmination of all of the work I have done to this point, which I can then apply at a time when I feel our voters most need that advocacy and dedication and commitment to protecting their votes and their voices,” Benson said. “In a nutshell, it is probably the greatest honor of my life to be able to do this job in this moment.”

Positions like secretary of state can often serve as a stepping stone for politicians who are trying to reach a higher office.

But that’s not the case for Benson, Nessel said, although Benson’s name has been floated for future runs for governor or U.S. Senate.

Dana Nessel | Ken Coleman

“Lots of people run for attorney general, and they aren’t really practicing attorneys, so they don’t really know about the law. And lots of people run for secretary of state who, again, are just politicians, they’re not election law attorneys. And they’re not nearly as knowledgeable as she is. They’re just figureheads,” Nessel said. “Jocelyn’s not just a figurehead, she’s somebody who really knows what she’s talking about and understands the mechanics of elections. And thank God, because I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have somebody like her in this position during this very difficult time.”

Because Benson doesn’t see the job as political, she has no issue working across the aisle with county clerks, such as Ottawa County Clerk Joe Roebuck, a Republican.

“One of the first official communications from her to Michigan’s county and local clerks included her cell phone number and direct email, and an invitation to reach out. She has always made good on that promise to be available to clerks,” Roebuck said.

“We gain so much more by working constructively together to solve problems than we do by putting a political lens on every interaction. Managing an election during times like this requires administrators at all levels to work together and solve problems. Secretary Benson and her entire team were engaged and responsive to the needs of clerks on the ground. Whether it was the need for additional voting equipment to handle the influx of absentee ballots, personal protective equipment for local clerks and election workers, election worker recruitment to manage a declining workforce, or other creative ways of solving problems – the 2020 election in Ottawa County ran more smoothly because of this cooperation.”

Justin Roebuck

Benson is active with the National Association of Secretaries of State, serving as a mentor to Bellows.

“She has been a source of advice when I’ve had specific situations as a secretary that I was previously unfamiliar with,” Bellows said. “More importantly, she has been a sounding board on some of the big picture issues of how we educate the public about our elections and election integrity. She’s also a real leader within NASS on improving the efficiency of services.”

While election threats have taken up much of Benson’s time over the past two years, she has also spent time focusing on branch offices.

“I see the democracy work and customer service work as two sides of the same coin. It’s all about making government work better for our citizens, whether it’s, you know, getting your license renewed, or doing a title transfer, or being able to vote and hold your elected officials accountable,” Benson said.

Benson campaigned on a 30-minute guarantee in 2018, promising that anyone could be in and out of a branch office in a half hour.

In order to achieve this, Benson used the pandemic to permanently overhaul how branch services work.

Rather than walking into a branch office and taking a ticket, residents instead are encouraged to make an appointment to visit the office.

If they do not have an appointment, a greeter will try to fit them in. Benson said that walk-ups are seen right away 80% of the time, and the other 20% are given an opportunity to return later that day or, if near closing, within 24 hours.  

“The appointment system is a great example in terms of allowing people the convenience of making an appointment, knowing that they can go and get service and not have to wait in long lines to access services,” Bellows said. “It’s something that we saw Michigan do, saw how they dramatically decreased their wait times, and now we’re moving forward with appointment systems here in Maine, as well.”

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in Detroit May 17, 2022 | Ken Coleman

Additionally, Benson has also attempted to cut down on how frequently residents have to step inside a branch office at all, expanding online services and kiosks at grocery stores.

“When I took office, we were in a scenario where about 25% or 27% of our transactions were happening outside of branches. Now, that number has tripled, to over 65% of our transactions happening outside of branches,” Benson said. “So, we’ve also significantly reduced the number of times people have to come to a branch. And that has also enabled us to have a more efficient service model when people do have to use a branch so that they can either schedule their visit ahead of time or walk up and be seen, in nearly every situation, right away.”

Bellows noted that secretaries currently have uniquely scrutinized positions, which she said makes Benson taking the time to be a mentor that much more meaningful.

“She’s one of the hardest working secretaries of state I know. She always shows up when it’s important. When there are virtual meetings of secretaries of state, whether it’s a security briefing or a conversation about policy, she’s there. Sometimes she’s joining from the road because she’s traveling from one part of Michigan to another, and then that evening, you see her on national news,” Bellows said. “She packs a lot into a day or a week. She is tireless in asking tough questions, but then following through with pushing the national conversation about how we improve accessibility, security and fairness of our elections.”

During the election season, following attacks from Trump on Whitmer, Nessel, and herself, Benson was one of several public officials who faced threats and armed protests outside her home — something to which Hobbs, being from another swing state, can relate.

“Both her and I have faced a pretty fair share of threats and harassment and hostility, and have had to just hold firm in the face of that,” Hobbs said. “Many people look at her and I and say, you know, I don’t know how you keep doing this. I think her answer, which inspires me all the time, is that it’s up to us. We have to.”

It's hard to look with any clarity beyond, certainly beyond this election cycle, but also beyond 2024. I truly don't know what our democracy is going to look like in 2025.

– Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

Even in the face of those protests and historic challenges, Nessel said that Benson is always prepared to lead.

“She always knows what she’s talking about. She’s always calm, no matter what circumstances arise. And she always rises to the challenge,” Nessel said. “I always feel much better after speaking to her, even when it’s a very serious issue that would cause alarm. It’s the way that she goes about handling herself, and, again, having such great expertise on an issue.”

Nessel takes it seriously, then, when Benson issues a warning about the future of our democracy.  

Asked about her potential future ambitions after serving as secretary of state, Benson demurred — something that is common for elected officials, though Hobbs believes in this case there would not be another position quite as fitting for Benson, or another candidate quite as fitting for the office of secretary of state.

“She’s so singularly focused on executing that office well, it’s really a shame there’s term limits,” Hobbs said. “Because she’s in her dream job and setting an example for all the rest of us in the country.”

What is less common, however, is demurring on account of not knowing what the state of democracy will be after the next election cycle.

“It’s hard to look with any clarity beyond, certainly beyond this election cycle, but also beyond 2024. I truly don’t know what our democracy is going to look like in 2025. We know what’s coming, which is an escalation of the efforts we endured in 2020 and significant challenges to try to protect and defend democracy again, particularly in the next presidential cycle. So, all my thoughts and energy are focused on that, knowing that however we emerge on the other side, I’m still going to be committed to this work,” Benson said. 

“Protecting our democracy, making government work better for everyone, that’s my life’s work. So, wherever I can have the greatest impact in doing that, I’ll continue to try to do. Sometimes that answer has taken me to politics, sometimes it’s taken me out of politics, but the mission has always remained the same.”

Benson cited candidates across the country for positions like attorney general and secretary of state who believe in false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

“When you have people who were very clearly not on the side of protecting democracy in 2020, who were very clearly part of an unprecedented effort to undermine the will of the people and subvert the results of an accurate election, now seeking to be in charge of elections in critical states like Michigan, and Arizona, and Nevada, and Georgia, you have a potential to see what I’ve called analogous to putting arsonists in charge of the fire departments, where you’re putting people who, through their actions, have already shown us they don’t believe in protecting the will of the people, they don’t believe in protecting every citizen’s access to their vote, and are willing to subvert election results or fight to subvert election results, simply because they don’t agree with them,” Benson said.

Nessel called it “the most significant existential threat to our democracy that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

“If we can’t ensure that we have people who will follow the law in these offices in 2024, then 2022 will be the last fair election that we have. And then in 2024, all bets are off, and it’ll be the end of democracy in this country. This is not hyperbole, I’m not being overly dramatic,” Nessel said.

GOP secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo at Former President Donald Trump rally in Washington Twp. on April 2, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue

Nessel said she was “horrified” when Trump won the 2016 presidential election, and disappointed that he narrowly won Michigan, but never questioned whether he should have been awarded Michigan’s electoral votes.

“I never for a second thought, well, if I was attorney general, I would make sure that because I don’t care for Donald Trump, and don’t support him, that he should not be certified as the winner of our election. I never thought that, and I would never do that in office,” Nessel said. “And Jocelyn Benson thinks the exact same way. She would resign her post before she would try to manipulate an election. That much I know about her.”

Both Benson and Nessel will face reelection battles this November in a political climate that was expected to be unfavorable to Democrats. However, both have heavy fundraising advantages over their GOP opponents and the June U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade has buoyed female candidates backing abortion rights, like Nessel and Benson. 

Michigan Republicans have endorsed Karamo and Kalamazoo lawyer Matt DePerno for attorney general, who also has backed conspiracy theories about Michigan’s 2020 presidential election that have repeatedly been debunked by numerous journalists, courts, and Republican legislators.

“I think that her reelection and my reelection, frankly, are as important as any state secretary of state or attorney general, not just in our nation, but in the history of our nation,” Nessel said. “And I mean that, because the road to maintaining or losing our democracy runs right through the state of Michigan.”

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Andrew Roth
Andrew Roth

Andrew Roth is a reporting intern with the Michigan Advance. He has been covering Michigan policy and politics for three years across a number of publications and studies journalism at Michigan State University.

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