More than a year and a half after the 2020 general election, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, continues to fight back against disinformation and lies about the results in her state, warning that the “risk” to the nation’s democracy “is now greater than ever.”
By all official accounts, Benson oversaw one of the midwestern state’s most successful elections in 2020. More Michiganders voted than ever before, with some 5.5 million people (or just over 70 percent of eligible voters) casting ballots—blowing past the previous record of 5 million voters set in 2008. The unprecedented number of mail-in ballots resulted in a longer-than-normal amount of time before the state was called for President Joe Biden, but the final results withstood the scrutiny of multiple audits.
Although former President Donald Trump and many Republicans, including Benson’s 2022 GOP challenger Kristina Karamo, continue to insist that Michigan’s results were fraudulent, a local Republican review disagreed. A review led by Republican state Senator Ed McBroom determined in June 2021 that there was “no evidence presented at this time to prove either significant acts of fraud or that an organized, wide-scale effort to commit fraudulent activity was perpetrated in order to subvert the will of Michigan voters.”
Yet, the lies persist, and Benson fears that 2020 may have just been a first attempt to subvert the will of voters in Michigan, as well as in other states. Across the country, Trump has endorsed GOP candidates that deny the reality that Biden won the 2020 election. Republicans in Michigan have worked to replace GOP county and state canvassers who certified Biden’s win and recognized that the results were valid, regardless of their own political leanings.
Benson believes the “stakes are high” going into the 2022 midterm election. She positions the current political climate as a “truth vs. lies debate,” lamenting that relatively few Republicans have taken a stand for integrity. “If they simply stop lying and start telling the truth, that is the most direct way that we can emerge out of this era of disinformation into an era where democracy is again robust,” the Democrat told Newsweek.
The incumbent Michigan secretary of state spoke with Newsweek by phone on Monday to discuss her reelection bid and her concerns for the future of American democracy. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve been quite vocal in raising alarms about the Trump-backed effort to elect officials who believe the 2020 election was stolen. Can you briefly explain what your biggest concerns are if people like this win in Michigan, or across the country?
We know the stakes are high this year. And we know there’s a clear, coordinated national campaign that’s really rooted in conspiracy theories and lies to get voters to select individuals, like my opponent, who don’t seem to believe in democracy. We’ve said it’s akin to giving the keys to the bank vault over to a robber. It’s akin to putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department.
I think in a nutshell, the impact would be that these individuals have shown themselves, through their words and their actions, to be more than willing to not just refuse to certify election results that they disagree with, or block the certification or interfere with the certification of those results, but they would also, prior to Election Day, potentially make election changes that would confuse voters and clerks alike, and use these increasingly high-profile platforms like secretaries of state to spread false information about our election system in order to sow false seeds of doubt about the security and integrity of our elections with the intention of ultimately, potentially, discouraging voters from believing in, or participating in, democracy at all. And in all of that, in that campaign, that national effort, my opponent is the poster child.
Let’s say your opponent, Kristina Karamo, wins, or someone like her in another state. What’s the worst-case scenario in your view?
I think the worst-case scenario is that we then have an election in Michigan that is mired in confusion and chaos, and voters don’t know their options to vote or where to get their ballots from or how to return them. Clerks are underfunded or not supported, leading to dampened turnout and disengagement in our democracy, and a close election that could potentially open the door for my opponent, who may not agree with the election results, to interfere with the certification process.
I think in addition to that, others are using this increasingly high-profile platform to sow seeds of doubt among voters about the truth and integrity of our systems and discouraging them from participating in democracy at all. We have all of that playing out in a time when there’s increased scrutiny, increased challenges to our democracy, when you need someone with a track record and experience of actually overseeing a contentious election cycle and ensuring that, despite all of the scrutiny, our election actually went off quite smoothly.
More people voted than ever before in the 2020 election. So it’s a choice between will we be a functioning democracy, or will we be a state that set a national model for election integrity and then becomes a national punchline for a failed, confusing and ultimately unsuccessful election process?
If someone like Karamo was secretary of state in Michigan and she opposed the election results, can she unilaterally throw them out? What could happen?
In a nutshell, what would happen is the potential interference, or a coordinated effort to block the certification or delay the certification of results in Michigan, depending on the closeness of the race. Part of the goal of election deniers is to make changes prior to Election Day that discourage people from voting. And that ultimately begins to hamper or create a narrative around the hampering of the accuracy of the election results. That then sets the stage for a secretary of state to come in and, at best, not support the certification process, at worst, interfere with it.
In Michigan, the certification process is a multi-step effort. You have the county level—county canvassing board certify the elections. Those [canvassers] are appointed by Republican and Democratic parties at the local level. And then you have the state board of elections. It’s similarly appointed by the state parties. And the secretary of state facilitates and informs that process.
You would have a scenario where, if you have additional people, which we know are already there—there’s been plenty written about the changes to the canvassers themselves, replacing those at the county and state level who stood guard over the election results with those who have openly said that they don’t believe in the results of the 2020 election. You have that already teed up for a very high likelihood of the potential rejection of certification or delays of the process at the state or local level.
In that case, a secretary of state who goes along with or exacerbates that, not just interferes with our certification process or delays here in Michigan, but creates an incentive for states like Pennsylvania and Georgia to follow suit. And in the way that Michigan was a leader in 2020 for protecting and guarding the election results, you have the potential for Michigan to lead the way, under the leadership of an election denier, [with] the dismantling of the accurate results. Not just in Michigan, but again, with potential ramifications for other states who would follow suit.
I recently interviewed Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. He told me that he’s still confident that the election systems in place are secure, despite these efforts to undermine it. Others have said 2020 proved that our election system is resilient. What’s your response to that?
I think in 2020 we oversaw the most secure, safest, highly transparent, highly accessible election in Michigan history. We saw more people vote than ever before in the midst of a global pandemic. And the election processes, all the way up to and through the election day and including the voter tabulation process, was extraordinarily smooth. After the fact, our results and the election withstood widespread national scrutiny, a coordinated effort to try to undermine those results. Yet, in the midst of that, hundreds of audits and a Republican-led state Senate committee [review] all concurred in finding no widespread fraud in Michigan, and affirmed the accuracy of the results.
In other words, the process worked in 2020 and it worked because people of integrity, on both sides of the aisle at every level, did the right thing and protected the will of the people, even if they didn’t agree with it. So yes, the story of the 2020 election is one of democracy prevailing. However, the story of democracy since then has been one of a coordinated escalating effort to replace referees who stood guard over the election results. Many of them in Michigan have already been replaced with those who would do the opposite if called upon in future elections. The risk is now greater than ever before. This year will determine, ultimately, who is positioned in 2024 to oversee our elections.
There’s essentially a lot at stake, and those successes and history and the truth and the law and the vast majority of people are on the side of democracy prevailing, and that gives me hope. The challenges have all but escalated, have only escalated in the year since 2020, which is why we say that now the threat to democracy is at a five-alarm fire.
A lot of voters in Michigan and across the country believe the lies about the 2020 election. I assume you encounter these voters. How do you push back against this misinformation?
I think first to defend our democracy, now and in the future, we have to build a nonpartisan, pro-democracy coalition of many voices—state, local, in politics and out— who are committed to being unequivocal truth tellers, to talking about data, to talking about results and to talking to people who they are connected with about the truth about the 2020 election, and the truth of the integrity of our democracy.
What’s challenging that most, and what is causing the spread and the metastization of this misinformation, of these lies, have primarily been Republican candidates for office, or Republican elected officials, who have, in many cases, knowing full well what the truth is, chose to repeat and spread misinformation, which has metastasized again to impact many of those who support these individuals, who then repeat this information or believe it because they’re hearing it from people they are supposed to trust. And so it’s really been a misuse and an abuse of that trust that so many citizens have placed in elected officials, particularly Republican leaders and Republican candidates for office, that has led and exacerbated this misinformation among so many. And if they simply stop lying and start telling the truth, that is the most direct way that we can emerge out of this era of disinformation into an era where democracy is again robust, truthful, and data-based ideas are debated, as opposed to the truth vs. lies debate that we now find ourselves in.
From Michigan, there were two Republican members of Congress, Fred Upton and Peter Meijer, who actually voted to impeach Trump after January 6, 2021. And there were some other Republicans at the local level that did push back against false election claims. Do you think that trend among Michigan Republicans will continue moving forward, or are you concerned that the state party is moving more toward the misinformation?
It’s been particularly discouraging to see so many [GOP] leaders who previously told the truth then, facing pressure by party officials and others, start walking back that commitment to the truth and instead lean toward the lies and the falsehoods and the misinformation that really fueled this unprecedented effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Unfortunately right now, we see more Republican officials than not choosing lies over facts, and choosing falsehoods over the truth. They do so, not just as a disservice to their own reputations ultimately, because I truly believe history will not look kindly upon them, they do so in a disservice to their own commitment to serving their constituents and upholding the law and the oaths they take, if and when they take office.
I do think it’s going to take more courageous Republican leaders, like Congresswoman [Liz] Cheney, like state Senator Ed McBroom to, again, simply tell the truth to those who look up to them, come what may. If we see more people choosing courage instead of weakness at a time like this, then Americans can have faith that their democracy will emerge, I hope, ultimately stronger than ever before. We have yet to see many choose that path. That’s why, to me, voters have the most power this year in 2022, because they can at the ballot box on Election Day remove those leaders who have lied to them in order to further their own political agendas and partisan goals. Instead [they can] support those on either side of the aisle who have stood for the truth, even at the risk of losing their positions, or influence, in the Republican Party.
I believe you have to go in a minute, but is there anything else quickly that you think is important to share about elections in Michigan and your campaign?
I think it’s critical for voters to know the choices they make this fall, particularly in secretary of state races but also in attorneys general and gubernatorial races, will determine whether democracy stands in 2024 and beyond. In secretary of state races in particular, those choices will determine who will oversee elections in the future and, particularly, in 2024 where we anticipate every lever that was pulled in 2020 to try to overturn accurate election results will be pulled again.
I have confidence in Michigan voters. They’re smart. They want their voices heard. They want their voices to count no matter who they may be voting for, or what area of the state they may live in. In the past, Michigan voters have voted across party lines to expand our right to vote and enshrine that in our state constitution—back in 2018. I’m confident that when Michigan voters learn the facts about my opponent, and other candidates who are spreading lies, that they will make the right decision.
But the stakes are high. It’s going to be a fight to the finish line. And we’re not going to pull any punches when it comes to talking to the voters about the real choice and the impact of that choice that they’ll have to make in November.