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Ann Arbor — Michigan's Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson is calling on residents to debate the way America selects presidents. 

Benson, who will oversee the next presidential election for the state as the newly elected Michigan secretary of state, said as the 2020 election approaches, conversations on election reforms will increase, as will questions surrounding whether the Electoral College remains effective. 

"It’s an important national discussion we need to have, and now is the time," Benson said Tuesday, a week after winning her race against Mary Treder Lang, at a symposium by the National Popular Vote campaign at the University of Michigan.

"In Michigan, we have a real opportunity to build a robust and comprehensive democracy reform agenda, bolstered by the two proposals that just passed, which are making us more transparent."

Proposals 2 and 3, ballot issues that passed last week, create a citizens redistricting commission and expand voter rights.

Law professors, public policy officials and political science experts gathered at UM's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy ahead of Benson's speech to discuss whether electoral votes that decide a presidential election should be changed in favor of the popular vote. 

Joe Schwarz, former U.S. representative and lecturer in public policy at UM, said he was in favor of forgoing the Electoral College because it would force presidential candidates to visit and advocate in each state rather than focus on ones that "are worth it to them."

"The Electoral College is voter suppression," Schwarz said. "Presidential candidates take a look at your state and say it's not worth it, they're only going to vote Democrat or Republican. Electoral College sets us up for that (scenario), which essentially suppresses the vote. We have done some things like Proposal 2 to try to make our votes count and reduce gerrymandering. We have a lot of work to do, and the national popular vote is the way to go."

Margo Schlanger, UM Law School professor and civil rights attorney, said matching names and addresses to voter registration and other obstacles play a large role in voter suppression. 

"What if I got married, what if it’s a translated name ... this has a disparate impact against women, immigrants and people who have an impact on the states, amounting to hundreds of thousands of votes nationwide," Schlanger said.

She said same-day voter registration solves most of the problems voters may face.

"Poor people and students suffer when their voting addresses don’t often match addresses to limit their voting. Then there's the issue of felony disenfranchisement ... We need a transition from where voting is not a privilege to everyone gets to vote ..."

Benson didn't take a stance on whether the Electoral College should be replaced by the popular vote. She said she's focused on restoring voter confidence so they don't become disengaged. 

"I think there are many ways to reform the system with an eye towards creating or encouraging an informed and engaged election and restoring voter confidence in the system," Benson told The Detroit News after the forum.

"There aren't a lot of easy answers on how to make this work. So, we have to see what does the data show, what are the best practices around the country that we can implement to advance this goal of having an informed and engaged electric, higher turnout, more access to information and voters having confidence in the process."

In 2007, Maryland became the first state to join the National Popular Vote Interstate bill, which proposesthat electoral votes should be awarded to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote. As of September 2018, it has been endorsed by 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Pat Rosenstiel, CEO of Ainsley Shea and senior consultant to the National Popular Vote campaign, said "the state-based 'winner takes all' is the problem. The National Popular Vote bill, he said, is bipartisan. 

"Twelve states have adopted it with 172 electoral votes … and we have done it in a bipartisan fashion," Rosenstiel said. "Donald Trump supports a national popular vote for president, so does Hillary Clinton ... Maybe we can do the most systemic reform in our lifetime ..."

Tara Ross, retired lawyer and author in 2017 of “The Indispensable Electoral College: How the Founders’ Plan Saves Our Country from Mob Rule” in advocated for the current system. She said it can serve either political side and still is needed to protect Americans as a check on democracy. 

"(The electoral college) does provide barriers against fraud," Ross said. "It encourages coalition building. We’re in the exact same position we were in 100 years ago In the 1800s … there was a very persistent divide between red and blue, and it seemed like, 'How are we ever going to fix this?' "

She said one of the solutions was the Electoral Cllege to prevent small states from being outvoted by larger states.

"We’re not made as a perfect democracy, and the founders did that on purpose," Ross said. "They were talking about how to put checks and balances on themselves because they didn’t trust anyone, even themselves. The Electoral College is outdated, but only if we all became perfect overnight, which we haven’t." 

Dennis Archer, a former mayor of Detroit and Michigan Supreme Court justice, noted that last week's election was evidence of "a changing America."

"I believe in change," he said. "We ask: How can things be better for all Americans? But we all need to be honest with what we see. Think about what Gerald Ford, our president, would do. He’d say let everyone work together and make every vote count, but that doesn’t work because there are some people out there who don’t want us to vote. I’m not against change, just let them vote in every state." 

John Wilhelm, a recent third-party candidate in Michigan for the U.S. Senate, is in favor of reforming the voting system because he said the current system discriminates against those running outside a two-party system. 

“I prefer we focus on tactics rather than strategy and we want to make sure what is put in place is stable,” said Wilhelm, 79, of Ann Arbor.

srahal@detroitnews.com
Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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