AP Interview: Michigan official warns of democracy threats

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2020, file photo, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks in Detroit. In an interview with The Associated Press, Benson says politicians lying about fraud in the 2020 presidential election, Republican efforts to make voting more difficult and the continued spread of disinformation leave her deeply concerned about the future of American democracy. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, file)

LANSING, Mich. – Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson serves as the chief election official in Michigan, working alongside nearly 1,700 local officials who administer elections in the battleground state. In 2020, Benson was at the center of efforts to ensure a safe and secure election amid the COVID-19 outbreak. It also was the first major election in Michigan since voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 allowing no-excuse absentee voting. The number of absentee ballots jumped — from 1.2 million during the 2016 presidential election to 3.2 million in November 2020.

The Associated Press interviewed Benson, a Democrat and election law expert, about combatting disinformation surrounding the 2020 election, preparations for the 2024 presidential election and efforts by Republicans in Michigan and elsewhere to enact new limits on voting. Republicans argue new limits are needed, particularly on mail voting, to increase security and confidence in elections, although no widespread fraud was identified last year. Michigan’s governor, a Democrat, is likely to veto any voting restriction passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature, but the state has a unique process that could allow voting bills to become law if enough citizens petition for it and the Legislature passes it.

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The interview, held May 20, has been condensed.

AP: How do you combat the disinformation still surrounding the 2020 election?

BENSON: We have to recognize that we’ve got to work from the same set of facts. And those facts have to be based in evidence and truth, not in political agendas and in partisan efforts. Everyone who sees and knows the truth needs to call on every leader to tell the truth and to continue to remind people what the evidence and the truth is. Secondly, those who refuse to tell the truth … those leaders in particular who continue to propagate the ‘big lie’ and even codify legislation in furtherance of it, there needs to be accountability. And particularly, there needs to be accountability for the tragedy that we saw in our Capitol on Jan. 6.

AP: Across the country, we are seeing several GOP-controlled legislatures seeking to exert more control over election officials. How concerned are you that we could end up seeing more of these outside ballot reviews like in Arizona or even takeovers of local election offices?

BENSON: I’m deeply concerned about the future of our democracy and about all of the things that we’re seeing and have seen on a near weekly basis emerge throughout our country, but particularly in states that were high profile in 2020 -- Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada -- to consistently propagate the ‘big lie,’ propagate this idea, this falsehood that the election was anything but safe and secure, to codify legislation in furtherance of that and really undo a lot of the policies that led to such enormous turnout and security in 2020. … I feel very strongly that the battles that we saw around 2020's election ... was just the beginning of what is clearly turning out to be a multi-year, strategic, nationally coordinated, partisan assault on the vote in our country and on our democracy. And we will see another battle in the 2022 elections around that truth and around the security of the vote, around access to the vote. But it's also all going to culminate, I believe, in an effort to try again in 2024 what those democracy deniers attempted to do in 2020 but failed. And in 2024, the bad actors, I believe, will be more coordinated, more strategic, better funded and will have the benefit of doing this work for a number of years. I’m deeply concerned about the future health of our democracy.

AP: We had a historic turnout last year and now we’re seeing Republican lawmakers in several states, including Michigan, pushing new voting limits. What is behind this and what are the biggest dangers if these bills become law?

BENSON: It’s a reaction that’s being framed as ‘we’re reacting and trying to address voter fraud,’ but the policies actually aren’t doing that. They’re actually reacting to the historic level of voter turnout that we saw across the board, across the aisle, not just in Michigan, but across the country. And I know that simply just by looking at the data and the impact of these bills — not just in Michigan but in Georgia and Texas, in Florida, in Iowa, in Wyoming, in Montana, in Arizona — all of which have the net impact of making it harder for people to get ballots, making it harder for people to return their ballots and making it harder for election administrators to do their jobs and secure the process and ensure that every valid vote is counted.

AP: Michigan is unique in that it has a citizen process that could see these voting bills become law despite opposition from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. How concerned are you about that and what plans do you have to push back against this effort?

BENSON: I find it very alarming that any lawmaker would use such an undemocratic way of enacting rules over democracy as to what has been contemplated very publicly by a major political party in our state. … Any short-term gains that may be won by a very anti-democratic process, where 4% of the voting-age population can determine the rules of democracy for the other 96%, won't last. … In this immediate moment, my focus is on making sure people are educated on the impact of these policies and what they would actually do.

AP: As someone who focused on domestic extremism while working earlier in your career with the Southern Poverty Law Center, what went through your mind on Jan. 6 and what can be done to prepare for the 2024 election?

BENSON: Initially, what went through my mind, was I think was what went through almost everyone's mind, which was just devastation and deep sadness and, of course, fear of what could happen. … This is what happens when you allow the ‘big lie’ to get out of control. And these people are acting on a lie and they’re acting on and responding to a lie that they’ve been told by elected officials who they trust. And it has to stop. We have to just start telling the truth. … The immediate next steps really just involve truth and accountability, in my view. And ultimately, then reconciliation once we can get through those first two steps. And what worries me is that we’re not talking about any of those things.

___ Cassidy reported from Atlanta.

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