Secretary Jocelyn Benson has held an impressive list of titles over the years: lawyer, dean, CEO, military wife, 25-time marathon runner (even completing one while eight months pregnant), mom, activist, author, and most recently, Michigan’s Secretary of State. After hearing more about her goals for this year, I felt energized and motivated to move forward in these uncertain times that 2020 has brought. I hope you will feel the same after reading her story.
PROMOTING THE RIGHT TO VOTE
2020 has proved to be a year of uncertainty, challenge, and change. For many, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen from day to day. Navigating through this moment in our history is about staying focused and knowing what we’re trying to accomplish. I’m not allowing noise to distract me from the purpose set out ahead of me, which is ensuring voting works for everyone in our state. My focus is on making data-driven decisions, providing solutions, and making forward progress to overcome challenges.
My parents were special education teachers, and at a young age they taught me the importance of hearing every voice and that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed in our country. These values have been a beacon guiding my goals and decisions as I’ve moved through life.
Seeing how important legislation was in making democracy work, I became a lawyer. I wanted to have a part in enforcing the Voting Rights Act. My career began in Montgomery, Alabama, investigating hate groups and hate crimes around the country. I was particularly inspired in Selma when I was at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was the site of the brutal Bloody Sunday beatings of civil rights marchers in 1965. It was then that I knew I’d continue the work of those who had come before us.
As my career continued as an election lawyer, I noticed that we were often suing Secretaries of State to compel them to do the right thing. This experience led me to write a book in 2010, State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process. I was struck by the fact that we elect these officers who run our elections, and yet few people pay attention to the candidates’ qualifications that they’re voting for to do this important job. The book highlights the ways Secretaries of State can make a positive impact on promoting democracy, which eventually inspired me to run for office myself in the 2018 election.
I ran for this office as a way of continuing my life’s passion of making democracy work for everyone. It’s a really unique opportunity to be the Michigan’s State Chief Election Officer right now at this critical moment. We’re not only staring down the barrel of one of the most critical presidential elections of our lifetime, but we’re also charged with implementing two significant changes to our Constitution: the Citizens Redistricting Commission and the various changes to our election laws that were introduced in the Promote the Vote Amendment. With all of that in place, it has been an extraordinary time to have this role. It’s a continuation of the work I’ve done my whole life to promote access to the vote for everyone.
In working towards that goal, we launched the Voting Matters Initiative. Through this program, our department identifies parts of the state that have the lowest levels of voter turnout. Many of these communities influence Detroit voting results, but there are also rural communities around the state where we see people not voting in significant numbers. As part of the initiative, we go into these communities and talk to people about what we can do better. We address how democracy seems to be disconnected from them, but stress how important it is that their voices are heard. Through these conversations, I hope to learn how we can do better at the state level to build a democracy that embraces every voice and counts every vote.
We quickly learned through conversations that many people want to vote, but they’re just not sure how. Voter education is such an important component of making sure that people who want to engage know exactly how to exercise their rights. With so many rapidly changing laws and even precinct locations evolving from year to year, being an engaged voter means being an educated voter. My job is to educate voters and ensure that they know how to have their voices heard. I’m also working to dispel myths and encourage participation so that all citizens can be informed and engaged.
ON THAT FAMOUS TWEET EXCHANGE WITH THE PRESIDENT
The tweet from President Trump reflected the fact that this year, more than ever before, we’re going to see efforts to misinform our voters about their rights and the truth in administering our democracy. When that happens, we must correct it and let the truth lead the way. In this case, I let people know we were sending out applications, not ballots. I have the authority and the ability as the state’s Election Officer to send information to our voters. That’s precisely what we did in sending these applications. This is what other secretaries of state around the country (including some of my GOP colleagues) have also done.
At the end of the day, I was grateful for the recognition this tweet exchange provided, because it alerted people that their applications were coming. We need our citizens to know what to do with these applications and know about their right to vote by mail. In my view, the amplification of our efforts was a great boon for our state and demonstrated to other states the importance of sending these applications.
VOTING DURING A PANDEMIC
We’ve been working to create a robust vote-by-mail system that empowers citizens with the ability to request and return their ballots by mail, and make certain that they are counted. Offering voters the option to vote by mail is vital, as right now we’re hearing that people are concerned about risking their health to vote.
Secondly, we’re working to create safe in-person voting options as well. For this fall, we plan to have a solution similar to what we did for our May 5th local elections by enabling precincts to carry out social distancing, providing PPE for election workers, and promoting a strong voter education campaign that informs citizens of their choices and how to safely exercise their voice right now. Even in times of great uncertainty, democracy can continue and it’s essential that it does.
THE MVPs of the ELECTION
We’ve launched a statewide recruitment effort to recruit election workers to serve as our guardians of democracy. We call it our Democracy MVP Campaign. It recognizes that in an election, our most valuable players are our election workers on the front lines. Those interested can sign up to be an election worker and spend the day as a paid employee protecting democracy. Anyone can visit www.michigan.gov/democracymvp to sign up and learn more.
Be democracy’s MVP — sign up to be an election worker today!
Election workers are the most valuable players of our democracy; they play a large role in ensuring free and fair elections for all. Our democracy needs election workers NOW more than ever. Serving as an election worker is a paid position, and all election workers are trained on proper protocols.
During the coronavirus crisis, election workers are needed to assist clerks and count ballots. They will serve at polling places and will adhere to strict public health guidelines, including exercising social distancing, using sanitary equipment, and maintaining strong hygiene to protect themselves and others from coronavirus transmission.
Elections are the foundation of our democracy, and the way that all Michiganders can hold their leaders accountable in times of uncertainty. Please visit www.michigan.gov/democracymvp for more information.]
MORE THAN A MOMENT
The death of George Floyd was a catalyst for our country to come together and recognize the historic injustices that have been affecting African Americans and other communities of color for generations. I find this time to be an opportunity for everyone to lead, and particularly for the white community to sit with uncomfortable truths and proactively find ways we can all work together to do better. It’s an incredible moment in our history and hopefully we will take the tragedy of lost lives and make it something that leads to real change and inspires others to seek justice.
It has been encouraging to see so many young people get engaged and demand better of their government. My message to them is to be involved in the election process. Voting is a key way to send a message that change must happen. Electing people, particularly at the local level, who will enact change and proactively use government in a way that promotes equality is one part of this. As an outcome of this movement, I hope we see people get registered, become informed and engaged citizens, and vote. I dearly hope that this moment is one where all of us come together to create a better world.
I have witnessed time and time again in my life and career how sports can define and promote social change. We most recently saw this with NASCAR in June, when it decided to ban the display of Confederate flags at its races.
In 2015, I was one of the founding board members (and CEO) of the Ross Initiative Sports for Equality (RISE) working with Steven Ross, who is well-known in the Ann Arbor community as a philanthropist and has a strong commitment to education and sports. RISE is a national nonprofit that educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice, and improve race relations. Collaborating with the professional sports commissioners, we worked to leverage the platform of sports to do good and promote equality.
RISE has a strong educational program and I’m proud of the way it’s been encouraging young athletes to use their role as leaders. It has allowed them to recognize that they can play an important part in advancing social justice in their communities.
Serving on the board at RISE has taught me that people from all backgrounds can come together to create change. It has been a tremendous opportunity to work with some of the biggest names in sports to find ways that the industry can be leveraged to do good. However, I was also really impacted by the fact that there are so few women leaders in sports. That discovery was part of what led me to a partnership with one of our board members, former NFL executive Scott Pioli, to create the Task Force of Women in Sports in Michigan. Governor Whitmer formally appointed the task force last June, which I chair. Prior to the coronavirus, the task force completed its research stage, gathering information on the status of women’s sports in Michigan. The findings will influence our next meeting, scheduled for this fall.
PERSEVERANCE IS PURPOSE BEYOND OBSTACLES
As an athlete myself, I find running marathons to be a great test of strength and perseverance. Plus, they’re just fun! The running community is a great community of support and collaboration. Not to mention that running a marathon is a great way to see different cities. I like to travel around and race in different locations as a way of seeing who comes out to cheer the runners on, who’s racing, and what the course looks like; it’s a great time!
The perseverance I rely on to run a marathon also serves as the backbone of my professional life. The biggest challenge of working in this arena is the numerous times those who oppose you try to do so with arguments that are not based on facts, but on fear. They attempt to scare people with misinformation as opposed to empowering them with the truth.
It’s certainly challenging to be in a field where you know divisiveness, politics, and partisanship often rule the day as opposed to simply good decision-making and cogent fact-based, data-driven decisions. I chose to be on the side of trying to empower people and educate them with the truth and discourage people from acting out of fear.
Certainly, in looking at my life, I’m most proud of having a little boy (he just turned four) who makes life that much more fun. But on a professional level, I’m gratified by the way I’ve been able to help better other people’s lives through my work. Developing a career and living a life as a public servant means that you have to consistently focus on whether or not you’re making a marked improvement in the lives of others, which is something I believe we all should strive to do. I make a daily effort to see to it that the people I work with, or I cross paths with, feel better able to achieve their purpose through interacting with me or my office. That is what makes it all worthwhile.
We have two more major elections this year: the Michigan Primary on Tuesday, August 4th and the General Election on Tuesday, November 3rd. Whether you go out to your local polling place or choose the mail-in voting option, don’t forget to vote. Let your voice be heard.
To learn more about how you can vote, visit www.michigan.gov/sos.
[Secretary Benson has a portion of Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech hanging in her office and it inspires her daily:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.]