Benson: Democracy is essential, even in a crisis

Jocelyn Benson

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, democracy is essential. And it is possible.

The ability of citizens to hold their elected officials accountable — and weigh in on issues critical to their local communities — is all the more important in times of crisis. In Michigan, we have the tools to protect the health and safety of our citizens while conducting secure local, state and federal elections.  

On May 5 several local communities will hold elections — the first since the coronavirus was reported in our state. Shortly after that first COVID-19 case emerged in mid-March, and after speaking with several local clerks to develop our plan, I worked with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative leaders to issue an executive order that would require the local communities to conduct their elections primarily by mail.  

My office gave each local community the choice and ability to withdraw or delay items on their ballot until a later election, recognizing that for some this could be done with ease but that for others — particularly rural communities — delaying millage renewals could cause real hardship. About half the communities chose to postpone their elections. Others informed us that their local schools would not have funds to operate in the fall if a summer millage was not voted on in May. 

Since then, our Bureau of Elections director and staff and I have been in near constant contact with election clerks, including direct calls with hundreds of them to meet each of their specific needs. An immediate concern was ensuring all ballots could be received and returned without additional costs for voters or communities. We met this need by mailing absentee application forms with instructions and prepaid return envelopes, and covering postage costs for ballot-return envelopes as well.

The executive order also requires each community with an election to open at least one location where on Tuesday, Election Day, voters with disabilities and other citizens are able to register to vote, request a ballot, return a ballot, or all three. We have issued detailed guidance to our local clerks to ensure social distancing practices are in place in these locations, and have issued masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, wipes and other personal protective equipment for everyone to use. 

Finally, recognizing that it takes people — hard working election workers — to make all this happen on Election Day, we launched and recruited and trained more than 1,800 Michigan residents throughout the state to lend a hand.

This ensures every office can be fully staffed and that no one with health or other limitations is required to work. 

"On May 5 several local communities will hold elections — the first since coronavirus was reported in our state," Benson writes.

And we are seeing signs of success. On Thursday, four days before Election Day, we broke the turnout record for local May elections. Already 17% of registered voters had cast ballots, surpassing the previous record of 14%, and the average since 2010 of 12%.

This demonstrates that voters are easily receiving and returning their ballots, weighing in on critical local issues, without leaving their home. Further, it shows that even during times of great uncertainty, we can work together across the state to ensure that democracy marches on. With two statewide elections on the horizon this August and November, and no certain end to the health crisis, this reassurance for voters is critical. 

Unfortunately, we’ve also been reminded of the efforts, partisan or otherwise, to sow seeds of doubt in citizens’ faith in our elections. By spreading false information about the safety, sanctity and security of our elections, opponents of democracy wage their war. My office will continue to work with clerks around the state to ensure facts and truth prevail. 

At a time when Michigan residents are facing great uncertainty, our commitment to democracy must not waver. Administering elections during a pandemic requires balancing access to the vote and protection of the health of all involved. We know we can strike this balance. And we must do so. 

The health of our republic is at stake.

Jocelyn Benson is Michigan’s 43rd secretary of state and the author of “State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process