Benson: Everyone has role for democracy

DETROIT — Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson doesn’t doubt that the 2024 election will be securely administered.

Whether voters will participate and trust the results — that’s a more complicated story.

“The greatest threat to our election security is not necessarily interference in our processes. It’s interfering in our voters’ understanding of how to exercise their vote and whether to believe in the results,” she told a recent gathering of community leaders on election integrity hosted by the American Bar Association’s Task Force for American Democracy and Wayne State University Law School.

The second-term Democrat said she believes Michigan is at a “precipice” for democracy.

The state’s election infrastructure has “never been stronger,” she said.

Meanwhile, rampant disinformation – from domestic political actors and others abroad – is creating more distrust than ever.

Ensuring that the November election goes smoothly will take “every single one of us,” said Benson, a former dean of Wayne State’s law school.

“The next eight months are going to define the future of our country,” Benson said. “And the actions we take in those eight months will define not just the future of our country but the strength of our democracy moving forward.”

Her vision for how the disinformation can best be combatted falls into three pillars, she said.

The first is fully supporting the state’s election systems.

Recent constitutional amendments greatly expanded the ways Michigan’s residents can vote, with early voting and extended voting more widely available.

Benson said she’s working to find state and federal funding to ensure local city and county clerks can best administer all the ways the public can now vote.

The second pillar of her plan is educating the public in advance on how they can vote and what measures are in place to protect the integrity of their choices, she said.

“We have a responsibility to proactively make sure citizens know about the rules, regulations and security levers in place to protect our election,” Benson said.

The third pillar is actively countering misinformation about the election.

“The biggest threat to election security in this cycle is misinformation, disinformation, lies and deceptive tactics,” she said.

The deception will be “turbocharged” with artificial intelligence, she said, adding that the threats will come from at home and abroad.

“Our foreign adversaries – Russia, China and Iran in particular – have more of an incentive than ever before to interfere and intervene in our elections,” she said.

Those nations will be most interested in targeting important swing states like Michigan, she said, because “the outcome of this presidential election will directly affect their own plans internationally.”

Benson said her office anticipates that adversaries will employ AI-based attacks that use fake images of flooded or damaged polling places to convince voters their precincts aren’t functioning.

She also said election officials worry about broader attacks that undermine citizens’ motivation to participate politically, with AI-generated online posts that attempt to divide and demobilize the electorate.

To combat this, Benson said Michigan needs a wider variety of “messengers of democracy” who provide information and assurance in their communities.

“Our adversaries try to discredit election officials so that people don’t know if they can trust us,” she said. “So, we have to develop more trusted messengers in the communities.”

To do that, she formed Voter Confidence Councils – one statewide and 10 local – composed of religious and community leaders who can educate voters and combat disinformation.

Beyond the official councils’ members, she said she hopes ordinary members of the electorate will play a part.

“Everyone should be an ambassador for truth at this moment,” Benson said.


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