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Michigan's elections chief wants to protect voters, poll workers and democracy itself

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says lessons from 2020 are informing election officials' priorities and preparations for the general election in November.
Paul Sancya
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says lessons from 2020 are informing election officials' priorities and preparations for the general election in November.

Updated February 26, 2024 at 7:16 AM ET

DETROIT— Jocelyn Benson is tired.

Michigan's secretary of state has spent nearly four years dealing with fallout from the 2020 election, from the crowds who converged on aDetroit ballot-tallying center to stop the count, to the armed protesters who descended on her home after the state certified President Biden's victory, to former President Donald Trump's several after-the-fact lawsuits seeking to overturn the results, all of which were ultimately either dismissed or dropped.

"We've had to protect and defend our processes every day since," said Benson, a Democrat who won reelection in 2022.

She's also preparing to administer another high-stakes presidential election, in which the same two candidates — one of whom has since been indicted on felony election interference charges — will likely be on the ballot. Michigan, a key swing state, holds its presidential primary on Tuesday.

Benson says the events of 2020 and beyond have alerted election officials to new kinds of dangers, including physical ones. And they're aware that threats to election security — both from adversaries abroad and misinformation at home — could potentially be even greater this time around.

"We know we're at a moment where it's only going to get more intense over the next several months, as opposed to seeing a break anytime soon," she added, speaking to Morning Edition's Leila Fadel at her office in Detroit last week.

And yet, Benson is energized.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson sat down with <em>Morning Edition</em>'s Leila Fadel in Detroit on Friday, just days ahead of the state's primary.
Rachel Treisman / NPR
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson sat down with Morning Edition's Leila Fadel in Detroit on Friday, just days ahead of the state's primary.

She believes the stakes for the country are even higher in 2024. She says those who administer elections "have lived for several years the depths of which people will go to try to reject democracy," pointing to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol as one example.

"And we are more determined than ever to anticipate every potential contingency, every potential arrow that could be thrown our way, including people showing up outside our homes with guns, and be prepared with greater security, with more procedures in place to rapidly respond to any issues that occur," she added.

Despite the increased risk, and some election worker turnover after 2020, Benson says she's seeing more people who are interested in learning about — and helping run — the voting process this time around. She says that number is higher now than in the two decades she's worked in this area.

"It's actually become much easier to recruit willing and passionate and professional election workers, because it's almost as if for everyone who is trying to dismantle our democracy, there are 10 people who want to defend it," she added.

As Michigan's chief election official, Benson is responsible for making the process run as smoothly as possible. She says she's using lessons from 2020 to protect voters, election workers and, she hopes, democracy itself.

Misinformation is the biggest security threat

Benson says that while misinformation was more like a top-three priority ahead of 2020, it's the "No. 1 security concern" this time around.

"Misinformation and the ability for voters to be confused or lied to or fooled has a greater threat to election security than any actual hardware interference of security," she explained.

She says officials are trying to educate people ahead of time about what rights they have and how the process works, in the hopes that will make them less susceptible to misinformation in the heat of the moment.

But she says 2020 also showed that it's not enough for that information to come only from election officials. It needs to come from people who are already trusted figures in their communities, whether they're leaders in education, faith, business or sports.

"We are now this year equipping [them] with this truthful information about our elections and election security so that they, too, can help us proactively educate citizens about our procedures," Benson said. "So that if other quote-unquote authority figures try to confuse citizens about the security of their vote, we'll have a leg up on those efforts, because we'll have already laid the groundwork at least for citizens to know, if not what is true, where to seek the truth."

That also includes information about how people who are either curious or skeptical can get involved in the process themselves, like training to become an election observer or poll worker. Benson hopes that the experience — or maybe even just the offer — will help plant "more seeds of confidence" ahead of election day.

She believes that stopping the spread of misinformation may also reduce the potential for political violence come November. Ensuring the safety of election workers is another one of her top priorities.

"Protecting the people who protect democracy is our mantra this year," Benson explained. "It's something that we feel is critical, because it's part and parcel with protecting the votes of our citizens ... And it goes hand-in-glove with educating citizens about the truth of our elections."

Doing more to protect election workers

Michigan has nearly 25,000 poll workers on Election Day, in addition to the several thousand others that work during the early voting period.

Benson refers to all of them as "MVPs of democracy." And she says the state is doing even more to ensure their wellbeing this time around.

First and foremost, election officials want to try to deter the potential for disruption by making it clear in advance what the rules are, and stressing there will be consequences for those who break them.

They also want to equip poll workers with tools for de-escalating any incidents that may happen during voting — and get them backup quickly if needed. For example, poll workers will be able to discreetly text a specific number to simultaneously reach a member of local law enforcement, a local election official and the secretary of state's office.

"We didn't have that in place in 2020 because we really didn't think people would go so far as to try to physically interfere with the process of the counting process," she said. "Now we know it could happen and now we're prepared."

Benson says that a representative from her office will be within five minutes of every election voting area and polling place throughout the state, to be able to respond in-person to any concerning reports they may be hearing from the text system, social media or other sources.

"Above all, we just see it as putting a quilt of safety around everyone working elections in Michigan that will enable them to do their jobs freely and with the confidence that they'll be protected as they do their job, which is, of course, protecting every vote in the state," Benson added.

As Benson sees it, the "very foundation of who we are as Americans" is on the ballot this year. She says it's not just about the candidates who are likely to be represented, whom she did not refer to by name.

The question, she says, is about what Americans will accept as normal going forward. Will they allow leaders to abuse their authority to spread lies and misinformation, even at risk of violence, or prioritize the truth over their own ideological bent?

"If folks on both sides can start doing that more and trying to look at data and facts and amplify our common humanity with each other, I think we can emerge out of this moment better than we were coming into it," Benson said. "If we don't choose that path, then the path our country could end up on is one that has far much more division, rancor, noise [and] violence than any other time in modern American history."

The broadcast interview was produced by Ziad Buchh and edited by Reena Advani.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.