Updated, 8:12 a.m. 6/5/19
A federal court handed Democrats a big victory in April by ruling that the GOP rigged legislative maps to “historic proportions,” which necessitated special elections in 2020.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court in May stayed that decision. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told the Michigan Advance she believes that the High Court will ultimately weigh in on the case.
“I think in issuing a stay, they’ve indicated that Michigan, Ohio — all the states who’ve been found by federal district courts to have unconstitutional maps — will be considered in this ruling,” she said in an interview on Mackinac Island last week.
Benson, a Democrat, is actually the defendant* in the case, League of Women Voters v. Benson, in her official capacity as secretary of state. However, she had unsuccessfully tried to settle the case before it went to trial, arguing that Republicans’ 2011 state House map violated the state’s Constitution.
In 2018, voters approved Proposal 2, which empowers an independent redistricting commission to take over the process after the 2020 census.
The Republican-controlled Legislature has proposed cutting funding for that panel in next year’s budget. Benson, an attorney and former dean of Wayne State University Law School, told the Advance she doesn’t believe that move is legal. She said it would essentially slash the department’s customer service budget, which is “cutting off the state’s nose to spite our face.”
However, Benson said she’s optimistic about reaching a compromise.
She also recently completed a three-day, bipartisan tour in Alabama to promote voting rights alongside the state’s Republican secretary of state, John Merrill.
The Advance talked to her about efforts to fight voter suppression, especially for African Americans, with her new Election Modernization Advisory Committee. That panel advises the SOS on implementing Proposal 3 of 2018, which expanded voting rights such as voting by mail and same-day voter registration.
Benson said she will roll out an effort over the next month to increase turnout in the state’s least-active voting precincts. Sixty percent of those are in Flint or Detroit, she said.
The Advance also talked to Benson about how she navigates a media environment that’s often dominated by fellow Democrats Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, who are dealing with thorny issues like the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline running beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
Benson said that in her view, “If I’m doing my job right, I’m anonymous.”
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Michigan Advance: Do you expect that the U.S. Supreme Court is going to weigh in on Michigan’s gerrymandering lawsuit?
Benson: Yeah. I think in issuing a stay, they’ve indicated that Michigan, Ohio — all the states who’ve been found by federal district courts to have unconstitutional maps — will be considered in this ruling. We will see what happens.
I think at this point with just over a year before … well, we’re now within a year of the filing deadline, frankly, for the 2020 elections. Whatever the outcome is, we want to be able to move forward efficiently and begin the preparations for the next redistricting cycle.
Michigan Advance: The Republican-led Legislature has cut your funding for implementing Proposal 2. You’ve reviewed the law. Is it legal?
Benson: No. I mean, it’s constitutionally mandated that they fund this [independent redistricting] commission. They should be able to fund it; there are opportunities to fund it without cutting our customer service budget. To me, cutting our customer service budget was essentially what they proposed, [and] is cutting off the state’s nose to spite our face.
And what I mean by that is, these branch offices, one, are directly serving their constituents. If they cut off our ability to improve those services, they’re hurting their own constituents. But No. 2, we’re a revenue generator for the state. Investing in our office, investing in the Department of State, enabling us to do our job to collect revenue, enables us to bring back more of the $2 billion, $3 billion dollars we collect every year to the state General Fund.
My expectation, quite frankly, through the conversations I’ve had, is that we’ll reach some sort of compromise that recognizes that this office works best when we’re in collaboration with the Legislature and not being unduly harmed by it.
I’m confident with the conversations we’ve been having with the legislative staff that any confusion or misunderstanding about the funds that we need to do our job will be clarified before the final budget is signed.
Michigan Advance: What are you doing to combat voter suppression, especially for African Americans?
Benson: We’ve created a couple of things. One, we’ve created an Election Modernization Advisory Committee that, in part, is working to make sure that we’ve got — not just access in African American communities, but all historically disenfranchised communities — language-minority communities, others — to make sure we’re meeting the needs to serve those communities effectively.
And also implementing these changes, which voters enacted last year through Proposal 3, in a way that effectively communicates to all voters the new opportunities they’ll have to cast their vote.
But on top of that, what I will be unveiling, in probably the next month, is I’ve asked my staff to prepare a list of the top 100 precincts with the lowest turnout in the past 100 years — the average lowest turnout.
We’ve already done that and we’ve found of those 100 precincts, 60 are Flint or Detroit, and which are highly concentrated African American populations in our state, obviously. … For me, moving the needle on turnout means not just statewide, but in these precincts. I want the lowest-performing precincts to increase in turnout.
We’re going to be developing programming in the next several years to ensure we’re doing everything we can to communicate to citizens in those precincts that their vote needs to be heard, and their voice needs to be heard and that their vote matters.
Going there, partnering with local grassroots organizations, going to block captains, talking in the neighborhoods. These are precincts that are often neglected by campaigns on either side [political party] because they’re not voting. But we have a responsibility in my office, I think, to ensure that they are.
Michigan Advance: Both Gov. Whitmer and Attorney General Nessel have gotten a lot of media attention. They’re dealing with big issues like Line 5, the Catholic Church investigation, road funding, and there’s so much going on in Michigan overall. Do you ever find it frustrating to try and break through with media attention on some of the issues that your office is dealing with?
Benson: It’s interesting because I am, by nature, as an academic, as an educator, I am by nature just about doing, and research and work, more than I am about media and communications.
It’s been one of my greatest challenges in this position where, being a public official, you need to do both, but it’s just not something that … What keeps me awake at night is wait times at branch offices and [voter] turnout, and voter engagement, and elections going well.
In my view, frankly, if I’m doing my job right, I’m anonymous. Elections are running smoothly, everyone is happy and engaged with redistricting and it’s fair, and branch office times are down. Wait times are down. My role is different in that regard, although I certainly think it’s important to, from a communications standpoint, use our office to engage voters on knowing their rights and knowing the options that they have to cast their ballots, so that’s where breaking through is important.
*This story has been corrected with Benson’s correct status in the gerrymandering court case.