Benson talks election protections and defending democracy in 2024

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson testifies at a US Senate Judiciary Committee meeting. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

By Michigan Advance

January 8, 2024

BY KYLE DAVIDSON, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

MICHIGAN—As the chaos in the wake of the 2020 election continues to echo through American politics on the third anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told the Michigan Advance she will be working with Attorney General Dana Nessel this year on policies to minimize the potential for election interference and strengthen the penalties for individuals attempting to interfere with election results.

These policies, which Nessel and Benson, who are both Democrats, hope the Legislature will work with them to enact, would also strengthen penalties for individuals who submit false elector certificates to institutions like the National Archives.

Groups from Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all allegedly submitted lists of “alternate electors” to the National Archives in a bid to cast their state’s electoral votes for Donald Trump. Fifteen people in Michigan are currently facing charges for their attempt to submit false electoral votes in support of the former president, who lost the 2020 election to President Joe Biden.

“We have this sort of dual track for protecting the results of our elections. The first is laws to seek accountability and justice for those who try to interfere. But the second is to educate citizens about what to do when you see interference and to ensure citizens know how they can be a part of protecting the results,” Benson said in an interview on Thursday.

“We certainly saw that come to fruition spontaneously in 2020, with citizens showing up to the Wayne County Board of Elections to compel them to certify the election results. … There’s a lot of organizations as well that are focused on the post election certification process that we can ensure if anything is attempted, we have a well coordinated effort to enforce the law and to protect those election results from being overturned,” Benson said.

In addition to potential new policies, the Advance asked Benson in a Thursday interview what additional tools and policies are available to prevent challenges similar to the ones that followed the 2020 election.

“We have a number of new changes to the laws, as well as the wisdom of having gone through it in the past and seeing, frankly, just how far people were willing to go to overturn the will of the people,” Benson said. “With that, we’ve got, [I] really think, a lot of clarity on how to ensure the tactics that were attempted in the past are unsuccessful.”

When addressing challenges to the certification process, Michigan law was changed via a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2022 that clarified the role of local and state boards of canvassers as ministerial to prevent them from blocking certification in order to further a political agenda, Benson said.

The passage of the Federal Electoral Count Act has also strengthened the ability of Congress to protect against efforts to subvert the will of the people at the national level, Benson said.

The update to the law clarifies the vice president’s role in presiding over the count of electoral votes as purely ceremonial, following attempts to pressure former Vice President Mike Pence into interfering with the counting of votes in a bid to overturn the 2020 election.

While those legal changes have strengthened the ability to preserve election results, educating and preparing clerks against efforts to undermine the counting process has also become a priority, Benson said.

“The fact that clerks will now have the ability to pre-process absentee ballots will minimize, we hope, the ability for any types of interference with the counting of valid votes,” Benson said. “But again, we couple that with the knowledge that it’s likely people will still try to interfere and that we’ll prepare for as well, far more than we were prepared in 2020.”

The Advance also asked Benson where citizens and election staffers should be vigilant moving into the election year.

“I think we have to see 2024 as the battle of the O.K. Corral for lack of better words over democracy,” Benson said.

“In 2020, we saw just how far people were willing to go to block the will of the people from coming to fruition. And we also saw that 2020 also marked the beginning and not the end of what has unfolded as a nationally coordinated effort to harm democracy to deter people from believing in democracy. And it confused citizens about not just how to vote, but whether they should believe in democracy at all,” Benson said.

In 2024, the goal is to recognize the culmination of the seeds of doubt democratic adversaries have been planting since 2020, Benson said.

“Every citizen in our state and indeed our country has an opportunity and a responsibility to ensure those seeds of doubt do not bear fruit and instead ensure we are working collectively — regardless of who someone is supporting or who they’re voting for — to protect the integrity of our elections, to respond to lies and misinformation with truth and to recognize that is our collective responsibility in this moment,” Benson said.

As part of that effort, Secretary of State’s Office will be working to equip community leaders and influencers throughout the state — including faith leaders, academics, business and labor leaders, sports leaders and many others — with information about elections in order to push back against misinformation.

The goal is to engage in a nonpartisan effort to educate every citizen why they should rightly place their faith in the integrity of our election system, Benson said.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: How do clarifications to federal and state election laws help defend from political extremists trying to confuse people about democracy and their rights?

Benson: We know that the adversaries to democracy have three goals: They want to confuse people, they want to create chaos, or create a feeling of chaos around democracy and they want to instill fear, fear that would seemingly cause people to disengage and give up on democracy altogether.

So knowing that that’s the game plan, our response needs to be ensuring every citizen has clarity on how to vote, has certainty that when they vote, their voice will be heard, and has confidence that the results of the election will stand and that even if their person is unsuccessful, that still they can they can trust the results of the election to be an accurate reflection of the will of the people.

So that is our charge and it’s a charge that everyone can embrace, and one that I think we can ultimately be successful with because as I said, the truth is on our side and the law is on our side, on all these fronts. And the vast majority of Michiganders and American people want democracy to work and to flourish and to survive. So we all need to see 2024 as the opportunity and the moment in which we have to work together to use every tool at our disposal to strengthen our democracy and ensure that it prevails.

Michigan Advance: Alongside laws passed and signed this year bringing in additional protections for election workers, we did see some charges issued in the investigations into the fake slate of electors and the voting tabulators cases. Do you think that these movements send any sort of signal to individuals who might be looking to disrupt the upcoming elections?

Benson: Certainly, I think we want people to know, and that we expect every Michigander to be a part of protecting democracy, not standing in the way. And if individuals do choose to try to interfere with the counting of valid votes, with the casting of valid votes, with the certification of valid election results, we will be there to ensure that the law is enforced and that their efforts do not succeed. So my message to anyone thinking about disrupting our elections is don’t do it, because it’s not going to be successful and you’ll just find yourself in a lot of legal hot water as we’re seeing play out for those who tried to do the same in 2020.

Michigan Advance: As far as steps to support our election workers, protect democracy, ensure that we can continue to fight back against these attempts to disrupt our democratic system, what do you think is the most important thing that either citizens or the Legislature could do over the course of the coming year?

Benson: Well, I’m gratified that the Legislature enacted stronger protections for election workers against the threats that have really become an unfortunate part of the job since 2020 as these lies and misinformation about our elections have taken hold. What we need and what I hope to see from our citizens this year is more people, knowing that they’ll be protected, signing up to be election workers and supporting those who do choose to be election workers.

Democracy is something that will thrive if we all work together to ensure that it does, and part of that means citizens volunteering to be election workers at one of any of the three statewide elections or the various local elections that are happening this year. And citizens can go to Michigan.gov/DemocracyMVP to sign up. But we certainly hope we’ll continue to see the amount of interest that we’ve seen from citizens these last few years, and that enables us to ensure we’re fully prepared to have smooth elections throughout 2024.

In addition to that, I think a perennial need from lawmakers is funding for our elections. Funding to help us educate voters, funding to help us ensure all of our early voting sites are protected, and that our clerks don’t have to worry about seeking funds from their local government. They’ll simply be able to count on their state government to have their backs with adequate funding to operationalize early voting throughout the state. So we’ll continue to make that case to lawmakers this year as they come back next week, and hope that they see and recognize the importance of not just protecting our election workers, but fully funding their work.

READ MORE: It’s been a rough 3 years for the Michiganders who tried to overturn the 2020 election.

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license.

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CATEGORIES: ELECTION | POLITICS

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