Scholarly work-- Author profiles 'Guardians of the Democratic Process'

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Fresh off the Democratic Party's endorsement for Michigan Secretary of State, Wayne State Law School Professor Jocelyn Benson addressed a crowd Tuesday, April 20, on her recently-published book about the office she is seeking and those who hold the position nationwide.

Benson stressed that those who hold this office need to be accountable to the public they serve first, not their party affiliation, and to conduct themselves with integrity when enforcing election laws.

Benson said the theme she found after interviewing 30 secretaries of state was that the individuals "have an intense pride in their work and in their role in the democratic process."

"Some had a deeper knowledge of that role than others, and a deeper commitment," she said.

Benson, 32, of Detroit, spent about 18 months, starting in the Spring of 2008, working on her book, "State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process."

Published by the Ashgate Company, the 170-page, $80 book was published nearly a decade after the 2000 Presidential election, which placed several state secretaries in a poor light and called into question the sanctity of the democratic process and how those in that position carry a pivotal role to ensure fairness to a skeptical voting public. Benson is credited with providing the first in-depth study of the role secretaries of state play in registering voters, enforcing voting laws, overseeing their state elections, and certifying the results.

To write the book, Benson took time off from her job as assistant professor of law at Wayne State, where she currently teaches courses on election law, race and the law, education law and civil procedure, among others.

Benson's goal to become a lawyer has been with her for years.

"I've always wanted to use the law as a way to promote access to government," she said.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Benson said she would "bleed black and gold" as a Steelers fan, but has since embraced the local teams and has season tickets to Detroit Tigers games.

According to her biography at Wayne State University Law School, Benson graduated from Wellesley College, and earned her master's degree in sociology at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. She received her law degree from Harvard University Law School, and while there, worked for the Harvard Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit organization that sought to link academic research to civil rights advocacy efforts.

She also worked as a summer associate for voting rights and election law for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.

Benson said she was "inspired" by the attorneys who worked there because they "were using the law to ensure people who were wronged had a way to make things right."

Before joining Wayne State in 2005, Benson served as a law clerk to U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith, Sixth Circuit.

But her life centered around election rights. After serving on the Kerry-Edwards 2004 presidential election campaign, Benson was hired to help develop the first nationwide Election Protection program for the Democratic National Committee, where she selected, recruited and trained Voter Protection coordinators in 21 states.

Benson has also developed and supervised two statewide non-partisan election protection efforts in Michigan, and has testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee about the illegal use of foreclosure lists used to challenge voter eligibility. She is also a frequent commentator on voting rights and election law in the media.

Her speech was presented as part of the Cohn Scholar Lecture series. U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, who attended Benson's speech, established the Cohn Family Endowed Scholar Program to support the research, teaching and scholarly activities for the holder of the two-year appointment.

Benson is the second WSU law professor to hold that title, and, in the preface of her book, she expresses gratitude, saying, "being named as the Cohn Scholar, and the subsequent financial support, enabled me to thoroughly research and develop this book."

In her speech, Benson credited many state secretaries, both Republican and Democrat, who work hard to ensure elections are fair and non-partisan. But she also said that a few bad apples of the bunch have brought questions and mistrust from voters.

Benson said a handful of questionable decisions by state secretaries in the past decade may have led to voter distrust and a lack of understanding of the office in general. Florida Secretary Katherine Harris, who oversaw the 2000 presidential election, was also a co-chair President Bush's Florida campaign. And in 2002, millions of new electronic voting machines were later decertified in several states after officials found the machines easily subject to tampering. And in 2004, Ohio Secretary Ken Blackwell drew controversy with some of his contentious decisions and then later took credit for helping Bush capture his state during his re-election.

But she said she did not write the book as a how-not-to-do-the-job, but rather to highlight several state secretaries who are doing it the right way. Benson credited many of those she interviewed for trying to balance access to voting and accuracy to the process, regardless of their political affiliation.

Benson said the vast majority of those holding that office are committed to ensuring that election laws work as they should. Her speech centered on some of the research she did for the book, a case study of how the secretaries balance their roles and the steps they go through to remain non-partisan.

She said many secretaries of state asked if her book was about how they swing elections, based on problems from the past and the perception of the office. "No, I want to tell the other story," Benson told them. "I want to tell the story about how you're actually trying to be allies in all of our work in enforcing election law."

She said she learned the men and women she interviewed tried to bridge the entities that come into play during elections, and that most do not simply run elections, but administer it. In concluding her book, Benson said she found that the secretary of state is responsible for "executing policies and programs that further the dual interest of core democracy and ensuring access to protect the integrity of the political process."

Benson learned the position varies from state to state--what works in California may not work in Kansas--and it entails not only state laws, but also federal statutes. She also discovered different ways that secretaries have tackled certain problems and had a hand in changing policy.

She said a secretary of state can often be more effective in changing policy than a citizen protest. And those in that position can also be successful in revamping and reforming other areas, such as in literacy, education and other civic policies.

After learning about those secretaries she interviewed, Benson said she was "inspired by their stories" of upholding the office, implementing new programs and work to protect the integrity of the voting process while remaining aloof from political persuasion, from their own party or the opposition.

She said voters can keep those office-holders honest by their votes, or lack of votes, and by not electing people who bring excess baggage from their past. Benson cited polls in which the majority of those contacted believe their votes are not counted. "And that's a travesty," she said.

Benson said secretaries must fight against that perception any way possible. But the best way is to remain transparent, open and non-partisan.

If not, elected officials may face the same fate as Harris and Blackwell, who lost subsequent elections because they did not initially do what voters expected them to do, which was to run their office with integrity.

"Voters do have that final say," Benson said.

Her book has received positive reviews, and although the first printing was small, it has already sold out. Benson told the audience they could find a copy, but it might take a little work.

The book contains a description of the office as well as informative narratives about some of the people she interviewed and colorful stories about them.

After her speech, Benson answered a few questions from the audience. In some states, the secretary of state is elected, while in others, it's an appointed position. Benson said it's better to be elected to make people accountable to the voters.

"My goal is to make sure people have faith in the election process," she said.

Benson said the message she wants voters to take from her book is that they "have a real power in ensuring that their elections are run well, and voters who are concerned about any improprieties in elections have the ultimate say in who runs those elections."

She said doing research for the book on a subject she has had a lifelong interest in, and then ultimately running for that office, will be helpful should she get elected.

"It's certainly given me a strong understanding of what has worked and what has not worked in other states. So I'm excited that I'll be able to take office and have immediately a sense of what reforms would work and not work here in Michigan."

Benson's interest in fair elections and access to everyone in that political process has spurred her to run for secretary of state.

"I've always focused on issues I care about, in terms of access and opportunity," she said.

Her parents were both special education teachers, so naturally, access to education was another important issue for her.

"I've always seen the legal process and political process as ways to ensure those issues were addressed," Benson said. She sees politics and the law "as a way of furthering reform and progress on the issues."

When she was with the civil rights project and poverty law center, Benson saw that voting rights laws and issues became the pinnacle achievement of the civil rights movement. She said she became a lawyer to enforce those very rights.

In running for office, Benson lauded former Secretary of State Richard Austin, who held the office for 20 years and led the way for people to register to vote when getting their driver's licenses. She also became the founder of the Richard Austin Center on Election Law and Administration.

"He was a great example of a Secretary of State who used the office to make voting more accessible," Benson said.

"But I think we've fallen behind since then. I think we need to do more to bring our elections up to date. Voters in 30 other states can vote absentee without a reason. I don't think we've had strong enough leadership from the Secretary of State's office to bring us up to speed with those other states," Benson said.

If elected, Benson said she will work towards that, and to allow early voting, no-reason absentee voting, to ensure that campaign finance laws and enforced uniformly, and that every campaign finance allegation is responded to in prompt fashion.

The current Secretary of State, Republican Terri Lynn Land, cannot run because of term limits. And while Benson has received the Democratic Party endorsement, it will not become official until the party's state convention in August.

Published: Mon, May 3, 2010