Interview

Michigan’s secretary of state on the dangers of Trump’s attacks against women – and against democracy itself

Jocelyn Benson, a regular Trump target, tells Eric Garcia the former president must be held to account for his actions if democracy in the United States is to be protected

<p>Jocelyn Benson is facing re-election in 2022 but says she fears for the state of democracy </p>

Jocelyn Benson is facing re-election in 2022 but says she fears for the state of democracy

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When all 50 Republican Senators and conservative Democratic Sens Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona voted against changing the filibuster to advance the John R Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, Michigan’s Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said that it put an additional burden on states to protect the right to vote.

“The fact that one component of the federal government, the US Senate, is clearly abdicating that role, that constitutional role in this critical moment is disappointing to all those who believe in democracy,” Ms Benson told The Independent in an interview last month. “That said, given where we are in this moment, the action or failure to act in the US Senate also underscores the reality that the path to protecting and defending democracy will run through the states as opposed to the federal government.”

A day before the vote, Mr Manchin said that “the government will stand behind” people when it comes to the right to vote. But Ms Benson criticised Mr Manchin and Ms Sinema for their actions.

“I think it’s incumbent upon everyone, leaders and citizens, to do all we can to prioritise defending and protecting democracy at this time,” she said. “For any elected leader to choose hyperbole and rhetoric over facts and citizens is an abdication of their role under the Constitution to protect and defend the United States.”

Similarly, she said that a failure to reauthorise the section of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court nullified that required certain jurisdictions to have changes to their voting rules cleared by the government would allow for more disenfranchisement, particularly in her home state of Michigan, as well as Texas, Arizona and Georgia.

“So it’s a signal that the federal government will be in a weakened position to ensure the constitutional protections and the promise of one person, one vote,” she said. “They’ll be in a weakened position to fully make those real for every citizen in this country in light of the very clear, coordinated national effort to dismantle many of the policies that enabled so many citizens to vote in 2020.”

Now, Ms Benson faces re-election in 2022 against someone who spread lies and misinformation about the 2020 election that she helped administer. A recent poll from last month showed that she is leading her Republican opponent Kristina Karamo by 14 points and raised $412,356 compared to her competitor, who raised $133,054.

“I think one of the outcomes of the federal government’s failure to enact protections for the right to vote will be an increased focus on these races,” she said. “I’ve already seen more focus and energy around these races than ever before. It remains to be seen how that will manifest itself at the ballot box in November, but clearly there will be a choice in Michigan and a choice in other states, or a clear choice, between the candidates on the ballot, one of whom defends democracy and the other tries to dismantle it.”

Donald Trump’s consistent lies about the 2020 election thrust Ms Benson into the public eye. In May of 2020, ahead of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Trump slammed her for sending ballots to every voter, rather than ballot applications, which led to her tweeting in response. In September 2020, Mr Trump tweeted that she purposefully misprinted ballots for military service members. In response, Ms Benson, the wife of a veteran, said it was a computer glitch that was corrected.

Benson, right, with Vice President Kamala Harris

At the time, Mr Trump was also aggressively attacking Michigan’s Gov Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, whom he derided as “That woman from Michigan.” In time, six men were charged with an attempt to kidnap the governor.

In November 2020, the Trump campaign filed a lawsuit against Ms Benson, which a Michigan judge rejected. But by December 2020, this culminated in armed protesters reportedly demonstrating outside Ms Benson’s home. Ms Benson said it is no coincidence that Mr Trump’s angriest supporters targeted women.

“I think the attacks on women, not just coming from the former president but many of his most ardent supporters and others, are particularly pernicious and particularly personal and all the more offensive,” she said. “I think my most important concern is that they not serve as a deterrent for women to serve in times like these because we need all voices at the table now more than ever.”

At the same time, she said as a mother, it was a testament to how much some people will try to intimidate women out of doing their job. But the threats from Mr Trump’s rhetoric don’t just come to individuals; they are also hitting at the heart of democracy. Ms Benson has provided information to the House’s select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection on the Hill. Similarly, the state’s attorney general Dana Nessel has said that federal prosecutors should investigate “alternate electors” who created false certificates to act as electors. The select committee subpoenaed the chairperson and committee secretary from seven states, including Michigan to provide information.

Ms Benson echoed what Ms Nessel said, saying it was important to see what nefarious actions the former president and his supporters took to subvert the election.

“In that sense, we have to recognise two things are happening now,” she said. “One, the tactics and effort to potentially overturn or thwart an election result that Trump or others may disagree with in the future, those efforts are becoming incredibly sophisticated and perhaps more strategic. Because of that, in part we have to ensure there is accountability and justice and consequences for those who tried but failed to block the will of the people in 2020.”

Ms Benson is currently running against Kristina Karamo, who spread misinformation about election fraud during the 2020 race. She also has said Mr Trump won Michigan. Ms Benson said she is worried misinformation could continue to spread in future elections.

‘I think the attacks on women, not just coming from the former president but many of his most ardent supporters and others, are particularly pernicious and particularly personal and all the more offensive’

“I’m concerned that efforts by losing candidates to refuse to accept results and instead wreak havoc on election officials and our elections process because they lost an election will become a norm,” she said. “If we don’t seek accountability for everything that happened or most of what happened in 2020, it very well could become the norm.”

Ms Benson said she hopes that is not just the right message but that it can be a winning one.

“It’s up to myself and all of us who are on the ballot this year to ensure voters know not just that democracy is the most critical issue of our time and of this election cycle but that our citizens have a very clear opportunity to reject those election deniers who have tried to, with lies and deceit, dismantle democracy across the country,” she said. If that rejection happens, I think we’ll see, I hope, less politicians running on a platform of autocracy and partisanship over democracy, but it’s going to be up to voters to send that message in November.

She then added that “I’m proud to hopefully be a conduit through which they can send that message in our election as well, but it remains to be seen whether voters will embrace this clear responsibility and opportunity that they have this year or not.”

The Independent has reached out to Ms Karamo for comment.

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