By Cynthia Price
It was clear from the introduction local attorney Elizabeth Welch Lykins gave to speaker Jocelyn Benson at the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s Law Day Celebration on April 30 that Benson is a Democrat.
One undisputed example of that is that she ran for Secretary of State in 2010 on the Democratic ticket.
But it was also clear from Benson’s remarks that she is first and foremost a lover of our democracy and its Constitutional guarantees of equal access to voting, and of the rule of law. She is strongly opposed to what she called “hyperpartisanship.”
She started her address out saying that democracy is under siege, and she offered a number of trends that support her claim. But she said later,“To me the hope springs from the fact that in our Constitution, there is a protected right to vote.”
Benson, who wrote the book State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process, was eminently qualified to talk about the American Bar Association’s designated Law Day topic, “American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters.”
It is worthy of note that Benson, a Harvard Law School graduate, currently serves as the Interim Dean of Wayne State University Law School, after teaching there since 2005 and serving as the associate director of the school’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. Over the course of her varied career, she says, she “recognized that having a law degree is critical to being a strong advocate for equality.”
The practice of gerrymandering is one of the challenges Benson called out in her Law Day speech. “We’ve had a growth in the partisanship with how we draw our districts. Instead of keeping communities of interest together, we have more and more voting districts that are drawn to preserve a party’s advantage as a way to game the system.”
She recommends citizen-based districting commissions, and she referred to a student contest her office held seeking fair ways to draw the boundaries. A student who happened to be president of the college Republicans drew a map that “actually preserved communities and cities, where you have people from each party debating ideas and giving people a choice based on issues and not based on partisanship.”
That notion is closely related to another societal problem Benson sees, the lack of neutral information about what candidates support, and lack of reporting that holds them accountable. “The declining role of journalism impacts the ability of voters getting unbiased information on people running for office,”? she said later.
And that in turn is interlocked with yet another factor besieging U.S. democracy: money in campaigns. On Law Day, Benson said, “We’ve seen a number of case that have combined to amplify the role that money can play. The U.S. Supreme Court has not been as concerned with the way that money can corrupt the political process. When you have cases like McCutcheon and Citizens United, you get an imbalance of voices that’s in some ways reflective of economic inequality in this country. It runs counter to the idea that everyone can have an equal voice and everyone is equal in the eyes of the law.”
She asserted that lack of participation in the election process is the most daunting challenge for democracy, citing the statistics that in the most recent national election, 30% of the population was not even registered (22% in Michigan). Add to that the low percentage of registered voters who actually participate, and the result is what she feels is a crisis — a crisis compounded by misguided attempts to curb fraud through requiring voters to supply additional identification or affidavit signatures.
Benson is the founder and executive director of the Michigan Center for Elections. In another role, that of a woman whose husband is in the military, she founded Military Spouses of Michigan support organization.
It was in that context that she told the Law Day audience a story about fellow infantryman, “one of the best guys,” who at 27 had never voted, believing his voice meant nothing. She added that it has been extremely difficult for her husband to negotiate the
system so he can vote.
system so he can vote.
In addition to policy recommendations that address these sieges, particularly in the area of online registration, Benson issued a challenge to those present to apply to be a poll worker. “One of the best ways to support equality and democracy is to ensure elections are administered in a fair way by people who know the rules and know the law.”
All her life Benson has cared deeply about such equality. “My parents were special education teachers ,” she explains, “so at an early age I was instilled with this recognition about equality and making sure everyone has a seat at the table. I always wanted a recognition that in order to form the best society possible every voice has to be heard.
“From there my interests transferred into voting rights – the vote is the legal protection for that seat at a table,” she adds.
After graduating from Wellesley College, Benson had an opportunity to advance those beliefs when she worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center. SPLC’s well-known founder and tireless worker for civil rights Morris Dees was, she says, her first mentor, and is still a friend.
“At SPLC I investigated undercover hate groups and hate crimes. Living and working in Alabama was a great way to connect to the work of the past in protecting the right to vote. I actually graduated from college a semester early so I could move down there. It was hard, at times I was threatened, but after the first few investigations I found that a lot of times folks really wanted an audience and would provide me with various pieces that helped me gather information. It’s certainly a very grueling line of work.”
From there she went to Oxford University for her masters’ in sociology. She had clerked for Judge Damon J. Keith on the U.S. Court of Appeals, as well as worked with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and she was inspired to go to law school.
She was named Interim Dean at Wayne State Law School at the end of 2012.
About her position, Benson says, “It’s a tremendous opportunity to run a legal institution that has done so much historically to train the judges and lawyers and leaders in the state, and ensure that members of the legal profession play a role in Michigan’s resurgence. And it’s been a great opportunity to advance the goals of equality.
“The education we offer at Wayne is part and parcel of making sure we can continue to have a real democracy.”