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2024 U.S. General Elections

Michigan's elections chief talks democracy, the November election and, of course, Trump

I sat down with Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to talk about the presidential election and democracy, as well as Donald Trump.

On July 4, we celebrated America’s 248th birthday, and many of us also spent time contemplating what’s next in our great country’s future.

I know I have.

The stakes – as well as the tensions – are extra high this election year, with President Joe Biden visibly deteriorating and his opponent, former President Donald Trump, now a convicted felon.

Michigan, where I live, will once again play a pivotal role in this election as a battleground state that could very well swing the outcome in November. Trump eked out a victory here in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, and Biden won the state in 2020 with a more decisive margin of over 154,000 votes.

That didn’t stop Trump and other Republicans from doubting the outcome and in any way they could.

Who won the presidential debate?Biden has no business running for president. The debate proved it.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, was the state’s top elections official in 2020, and she will oversee this election, too.

I sat down with her a few weeks ago during the on Mackinac Island to talk about the presidential election and democracy, as well as Trump.

My following interview with Benson has been edited for clarity and length.

We are headed into a very important election. Is Michigan ready? 

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks to reporters during a press conference after midterm election polls close in Michigan at Cadillac Place in Detroit on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (Via OlyDrop)

We know the path of the presidency runs right through our state, and I think citizens are very aware of that on both sides. And so you’re seeing both a lot of attention, a lot of visits to our state, that are going to continue to escalate because we have a contentious (U.S.) Senate race as well. So we’re aware of all that, and our citizens are being inundated.

In my world, I’m focused on the fact that . And that is an opportunity for us to make sure everyone’s aware.

How about with absentee voting? Do you feel voters are getting more accustomed to that? 

It seems to be less of an attack point than it was in 2020. Again, higher familiarity and trust in it than we had before.

We also have implemented a statewide system to track absentee ballots on our website that we hope gives citizens more confidence than they’ve had.

What are your top concerns going into this election? You've already been through one contentious presidential election. What is most on your mind? 

I think two things.

One, how can we cut through the noise and protect people’s faith in the process? You’ve seen a lot of statistics on both sides of the aisle, but people, because of this noise over the last several years, are consistently losing faith in our democracy. And for me, it’s a cornerstone of my work to make sure no matter who someone votes for or where they live, that they can at least have faith in the process. Even if they aren’t satisfied with the results, they can believe in the process, believe that it’s secure. So restoring and ensuring voters have faith in our process is one of our top priorities this year.

But also protecting voters against the efforts to fool them with misinformation.

The Detroit Regional Chamber just commissioned a poll of Michigan voters. It shows a surprising number of people are losing faith in our democracy. And what really stood out to me was that 5% said violence or threats are justified if their candidate for president loses the 2024 election “.” You’re right at the heart of this. How do you handle that if people are going into this election not planning on accepting what happens?

To me, democracy is about accepting results and allowing for a transition of power that is nonviolent in character. And so the idea that some citizens will just depart from that ... is really troubling because it’s an effect of years of politicians sowing seeds of doubt about these institutions in a way, one could argue, to undermine people’s faith in them. So it’s showing that that’s working at least with this small subset of our population.

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I’m concerned no matter who wins, there’s going to be tremendous pushback.

It’s going to be up to our elected officials on both sides of the aisle and our leaders of other institutions like business leaders, like educational leaders, and others with influence and a platform to remind us who we’re supposed to be as Americans, right? And recognize that if we allow division to bring us down, we all sink.

And we’ve lost a lot of those voices. I think we’ve got to create more space for that so that we can reclaim the beauty of what our democracy is supposed to be, a bipartisan collaboration where disagreement is OK. And even some messiness is OK, but we have some guardrails that we all respect and rules of the game that we abide by.

It’s just distressing if people start losing trust in such a fundamental thing as voting.

And it expands. Losing trust in our judiciary. Losing trust in Congress. Losing trust in elected leaders to solve problems. It’s all connected, and we’ve got to as leaders take the responsibility to pull back that snowball effect if we’re going to survive as a superpower nation with a thriving economy and everything else that defines us as Americans.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks as she addresses the media with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris during a voting rights listening session at TCF Center in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. July 12, 2021. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

A big part of this election is how President . Do you believe that? 

I think anyone who is peddling lies that lead to threats against election officials, threats against our system and causes people to wrongly lose faith in a process that they should believe in is a threat to the very basic foundation of what we as Americans are supposed to be about.

I do, however, also believe this conversation about who should lead our country in the future needs to be bigger than that.

I really respected the piece on how secretaries of state should not be determining whether Trump belongs on the ballot. Did you get a lot of pushback from other secretaries of state, like those in Colorado and Maine?

Yeah, I did. But I pushed back on them.

I was really disappointed in my colleagues who didn’t, in my view, follow the law and what our responsibility is as states’ chief election officers and essentially took the bait in a way that was really detrimental to the bigger picture of restoring and ensuring people have faith in our democracy.

Ingrid Jacques is a columnist at 鶹ý. Contact her at ijacques@usatoday.com or on X, formerly Twitter: @.

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