Jocelyn Benson, Mary Treder Lang clash on SOS reforms, voting changes

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Michigan Secretary of State candidates Jocelyn Benson, (D), left, and Mary Treder Lang (R).

The Republican and Democratic candidates for secretary of state have similar goals of easing visits to state offices for driver's licenses and vehicle registrations as well as improving voting options, but strikingly different ways of achieving them.

Democrat Jocelyn Benson is promising a 30-minute guarantee of service at state offices — much like Mike Duggan's 30-minute guaranteed emergency room service when he headed the Detroit Medical Center. Republican Mary Treder Lang is advocating for more online services so residents don't need to visit the office more than once every eight years.

Treder Lang opposes same-day voter registration, one of the key changes in Proposal 3, while Benson views it as an expansion of voting rights and participation. Benson backs the redistricting commission in Proposal 2, arguing it is a fairer way to draw political boundaries, while Treder Lang contends it’s a flawed plan in which consultants would do more to draw the lines and determine political fates than an appointed commission of 13 political neophytes.

As the Detroit Democrat and Grosse Pointe Farms Republican court voters with three weeks to go before the Nov. 6 election, early October polling done for The Detroit News and WDIV found Benson, a former Wayne State Law School dean, is leading Treder Lang, an accountant and Eastern Michigan University trustee. 

Democrats “have the wind at their back,” said Bill Ballenger of the Ballenger Report, a former state lawmaker, and Benson perhaps more so than others because of she has more name recognition from her unsuccessful 2010 campaign.  

Benson has secured an endorsement from former state elections director Chris Thomas, while former Republican secretaries of state Candice Miller and Terri Lynn Land back Treder Lang. As of mid-September, Benson had raised more than $1.1 million, while Treder Lang had raised nearly $320,000.

But Treder Lang argued that her 13 months of campaigning will make a difference in November.

“As I get out to the citizens and they meet me, they know that I’m the real deal,” she said.

Easing SOS access

Both Benson and Treder Lang agree that Michigan residents wait too long for everyday services at the Secretary of State office.

Benson has campaigned on getting people through the Secretary of State office in under a half hour — a feat she hopes to accomplish by offering multi-year or permanent license plates, moving more services online, expanding kiosk and satellite desk offerings and performing a time study at branch offices. She also wants to improve customer service and take a hard line against increased driver responsibility fees.

"You interact with more people every day than any other office," Benson said of the state department. "We can instill more faith in state government’s ability to do the job that voters are expecting and deserve.”

A Harvard Law School graduate, Benson moved to Detroit about 15 years ago and began teaching at Wayne State Law School in 2005. She would later publish a book on the role of secretaries of state and serve as dean of the Law School from 2012 to 2016. 

In 2010, Benson lost to Secretary of State Ruth Johnson by a little more than five percentage points, the slimmest margin of any losing statewide Democratic candidate that year.

Treder Lang wants to expand the Express SOS options available online and on mobile apps. She also plans to increase the availability of self-service kiosks, mobile Secretary of State offerings and the ability to set up an appointment at the office.

No voter should have to come into the office more than once every eight years, Treder Lang said.

“We have extremely busy lives and we deserve a state government that works as hard and as smart as we do,” she said.

Treder Lang has worked as a certified public accountant for more than 30 years, serving in finance, management and sales positions for different companies. 

Though she ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives in 2008, Treder Lang said her experiences and skill set as a CPA, especially on computer security, make her the best pick.

Benson and Treder Lang also face two other opponents: Libertarian Gregory Scott Stempfle and U.S. Taxpayers candidate Robert Gale.

Relevant ballot proposals

Ballot proposals 2 and 3, if approved, would mean more changes for the next secretary of state.

Proposal 3 would allow no-reason absentee voting, same-day voter registration, straight-ticket voting and automatic voter registration when an individual gets a driver’s license or state identification. The proposal also would enshrine in the Constitution current practices such as the right to a secret ballot and statewide election audits.

Requiring automatic registration likely won’t be a significant burden on the Secretary of State's Office, said Eric Walcott, a Michigan State University Extension specialist who recently wrote white papers on the proposals.

Same-day registration and increased absentee voting would increase the elections workload, Walcott said, but the burden would fall on local clerks more than the secretary of state.

Proposal 2 would create a citizens redistricting commission, instead of leaving the process to whichever party is in power every 10 years. The next secretary of state would play a large role in administering the application and selection process of the commission and provide administrative support to the commission throughout the redistricting process.

Although the proposal requires a commission of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents, critics argue its administration would largely be left up to a partisan secretary of state.

Benson backs both proposals and said she is well-positioned to begin implementing them on Day One in office.

"I feel uniquely positioned to be able to do that with an eye to making it easier to vote and harder to cheat," she said.

Treder Lang would implement either proposal according to the law should they pass, she said. But she argued that same-day registration would be a security risk and an extra burden on local clerks. The redistricting proposal, she said, is “a partisan power grab” by out-of-state donors that puts no cap on the salary of the unseasoned commissioners.

“It’s a 13-person commission made out of political neophytes,” Treder Lang said. “In the end, it’s the consultants who are really going to dictate how we redistrict.”

Securing elections

Both candidates support the state’s participation in the multi-state Elections Registration Information Center, a nonprofit that syncs state voter information and alerts states to voters who may have moved, died or have duplicate registrations. 

Treder Lang and Benson said they recognize the potential security concerns associated with expanding voter options.

“You can’t do one without the other,” Benson said. “Every step you take to increase access to the process needs to be coupled with steps to secure the process.”

To increase security, the Detroit Democrat would require post-election audits, improve poll worker training, create an elections security commission and implement stiffer penalties for those who tamper with elections.

Treder Lang wants to maintain Johnson’s practice of removing duplicate names and people who have moved, died or are otherwise ineligible to vote as part of her push for “one citizen, one vote." She also wants to improve computer security and require training and certification for poll workers.

Treder Lang has promised to increase campaign finance transparency, in part by cracking down on “those individuals that are deficient on their fees.”

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Mary Treder Lang

Age: 58

Residence: Grosse Pointe Farms

Family: Husband Paul Lang, three children

Professional Experience: Longtime public accountant, who recently took a leave of absence from Vista Maria, a group that helps vulnerable youth develop workforce skills

Jocelyn Benson

Age: 40

Residence: Detroit

Family: Husband Ryan Friedrichs, one son

Professional Experience: Former dean of Wayne State Law School, CEO and executive director of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality