Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is President Trump’s latest target on Twitter. But her milestones in office speak for themselves.
LANSING, MI — The work of a Secretary of State is often not as highly-visible or praised as other elected officials. But Michigan’s current SOS is racking up a list of achievements felt by Michiganders across the state.
With nearly 53% of the vote, by a wide margin of victory, Michigan elected Jocelyn Benson as its Secretary of State in 2018. Since then she’s implemented a number of reforms ranging from giving voters control of legislative districts to recognizing transgender people’s rights as it relates to government identification.
On a tele-town hall last week with Equality Michigan and The ‘Gander, Benson discussed some accomplishments with constituents.
We’ve pulled out the most unprecedented achievements that matter most to the lives of Michiganders.
Government-issued identification matters on issues ranging from getting employment to driving to buying alcohol. Every time that ID is used, a transgender person’s identity is called into question. It’s legal in Michigan for a transgender person to be fired or evicted simply for being trans.
That’s the importance of making an ID reflect the transgender person who holds it.
It used to require a passport or court order to get a transgender’s person sex marker changed on their identification. That led to great hardship in the trans community, Benson said, citing a 2015 survey that found nearly 80% of transgender Michiganders did not have identification that accurately reflected their identity or name.
This hadn’t always been required, though. So Benson reversed the policy to what it had been under previous Secretaries of State like Republican Candice Miller, where it only required filling out a form and paying a $9 fee.
That form is available online to be printed out in advance. Benson reminded constituents that branch offices are presently closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and will likely be open by appointment only when they do reopen.
“Recognizing that a driver’s license or a state ID card is a necessity for all of our citizers, one of my top priorities has been to remove barriers that prevent or limit marginalized communities from accessing vital documents,” Benson said. “Upon taking office, we immediately began researching the evolution of this policy over the last thirty years, what other states had done, and how we can make Michigan a leader or among the leading states in ensuring we have a policy that is open and inclusive to everyone.”
Court orders, passports or other government approvals are still needed to change the name on someone’s identification.
Benson also reassured constituents that transgender Michiganders with identification that doesn’t reflect who they are should not pose any problems when it comes to voting. She reminded voters that photo identification is not required to vote in Michigan — ballot affidavits are available for those without ID.
“No one should feel for whatever reason that their ID should limit them from voting,” she said.
Citizen Redistricting Commission
One of the major things passed by Michiganders in 2018 was a commission to take the control of the drawing of voting districts away from politicians and place it in the hands of voters through the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.
This came after reports that politicians had done rather egregious gerrymandering — drawing voting districts for their own political advantage — following the 2010 census. Emails obtained by Bridge explained how districts had been drawn to reduce the influence of “Dem garbage”, noting that one district looked like it was “giving the finger” to former Congressman Sandy Levin (D-Southgate).
“Michigan was instantly placed in a leadership position leading the way for citizens in other states trying to find a way to amplify their voices and power in the process of drawing congressional and legislative districts,” Benson told constituents. “We’re now at a unique and unprecedented moment where we can set lasting precedent and create a model for other states in how we operate here.”
Benson went on to outline the application process to fill the thirteen-member commission. It involves filling out a questionnaire and submitting a notarized form. All the applicants are randomly winnowed down to 200 semi-finalists by a selection process performed by an independent firm. Legislative leaders can strike a collective 20 people from that pool before a final random drawing produces four Republicans, four Democrats and five Independent commissioners.
The commission will operate totally independently.
“My office is responsible for almost being an actual secretary,” Benson explained, “just providing technical services and keeping a public record of the commission.
Commissioners will be compensated $40,000. Michiganders have until June 1 to apply and send a notarized copy of their application to the Secretary of State.
Those not on the commission can still be engaged in the process. Everyday citizens can submit maps to the commission either statewide or of individual communities and attend town halls to discuss the process of developing the new legislative district maps.
“A critical part of the success of the commission will be the ability of citizens to generate input and ultimately maps for the commission to consider,” Benson said.
To that end, Benson said she hopes to make tools and software available to help citizens develop maps to send to the commission. She wants the tools to be available at libraries and other venues.
People seeking to apply to serve on the Commission can do so online at redistrictingmichigan.org.
Voting by Mail
The ‘Gander has reported on the massive success of the May 5 election. Where normal May voter turnout hovers around 12%, this year Michigan shattered records with a 25% turnout.
There were two major factors involved in this huge boost in turnout. One was the 2018 Promote the Vote amendment passed by Michiganders that gave all Michigan voters rights to vote by mail without having to provide any reason for doing so, same-day and automatic voter registration and other voter enfranchisement policies. The other factor was the novel coronavirus pandemic promoting Benson and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to send every eligible voter an application for an absentee ballot to encourage voting by mail.
“Many citizens voted by mail for the first time ever,” Benson responded to a question from The ‘Gander. “Nearly 200,000 people voted in those May elections and only 800 voted in person. Those numbers indicate that people will embrace this new right to vote by mail. It positions Michigan in a strong position to have a successful election in August and in November.”
The May election also exposed a limitation of absentee voting for blind Michiganders, who The ‘Gander reported had trouble voting from home privately because of an inability to use screen readers to help fill out their ballot. Benson worked out a way for blind people to vote May 5 while working to find a long-term solution to the problem.
Voter education, though, is an area Benson intends to improve over the summer. The process that allows every voter to vote by mail is being repeated in the August and November elections will be a repeat of the effort that was successful in May, where voters will get an application for an absentee ballot they must fill out and return to the state in order to get a mail-in ballot for the election.
Benson said she also wants to ensure “that every voter knows with certainty even in this time of uncertainty the elections will happen and they will happen on time. No amount of chatter or threats will change that.”
Benson told a constituent that she is very optimistic about the potential success of the August primary and November election but expressed concerns about attempts to sow disinformation about the system to reduce voter confidence and take advantage of a moment of high anxiety.
“There will be efforts — strong, well funded, national and perhaps internationally-led efforts — to try and confuse voters about their votes and their rights in our state,” she said. “If you removed that misinformation campaign that no doubt will come for many reasons to further various political agendas and partisan agendas … it would go very well, very smoothly. I have no doubt about that.”
Wednesday featured one of those efforts, The ‘Gander reported. President Trump spread false information that Michigan was sending absentee ballots, when in fact it only is sending ballot applications. He called Benson “a rogue Secretary of State”, but she shot back with correct information on Twitter.