It’s difficult for Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, to admit she ever does anything wrong. If she is caught with her hand in the cookie jar, she is apt to opine that her predecessor, Republican Ruth Johnson (now a state senator), made her do it.
That would be the same Ruth Johnson who beat Benson for the job she now holds back in 2010. Johnson served eight years as SoS, but what Benson, elected in 2018, said this past week implies that Johnson didn’t do a good enough job keeping Michigan’s voter rolls clean, forcing Benson to now “carry out the largest and most transparent list cleanup in a decade.”
It was revealed this past week that Benson has agreed to resolve a federal lawsuit that alleged she allowed Michigan’s voter rolls to become inflated and inaccurate, in violation of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The agreement ends a successful year-long effort to bring Benson into compliance with the NVRA and clean up Michigan’s voter rolls, hopefully before last year’s general election (that didn’t happen).
The lawsuit effort began in February, 2020, when Benson was presented with evidence of Michigan’s inflated voter rolls, including (horrors!) possible “dead people” (are you listening, Mike Shirkey?) Benson’s refusal to act prompted a lawsuit filed by Tony Daunt, head of the Freedom Fund. Since then, Benson has maintained there were no problems with Michigan’s voter file or her office’s list maintenance, insisting that Daunt’s case rested on “debunked claims and bad statistics.”
But the tide quickly turned on the Secretary. In September, Benson revealed that, after she had mailed unsolicited ballot applications to every registered voter in Michigan, at least 500,000 applications were undeliverable because the voter rolls were inaccurate. And in October, a federal district court rejected the Secretary’s attempt to dismiss Daunt’s case and ordered the parties to proceed to “discovery.” Now, after seven months of litigation, Secretary Benson has announced plans to cancel 177,000 voter registrations and has admitted in a statement that Michigan lacked “sufficient comprehensive efforts” to maintain clean voter rolls prior to this lawsuit.
Predictably, Benson and the Attorney General’s office said on Tuesday that a decision to clean the voter rolls “had been planned all along and it was simply a matter of timing under the NVRA before “implementation could occur.”
“It was clear when the suit was filed in June of last year, when federal law barred most voter-list maintenance, that this was a press release masquerading as a lawsuit filed to undermine public confidence in the integrity of our elections,” Benson said about Daunt’s announcement of the lawsuit.
“The suit prompted no action from us. As we have said publicly all along, strong voter registration rates and accurate voter rolls are good for democracy,” she told Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS) newsletter.
But Jason Snead, executive director of the Honest Elections Project, which supported Daunt’s litigation, released the following statement:
“Voter rolls should always be accurately maintained. Thanks to this lawsuit, Michigan voters now know they will be. Secretary Benson could have admitted the shortcomings of her office’s list maintenance program from the start. Instead, she spent a year fighting to keep her inaction hidden from the public, only to admit — at last — that Michigan’s list maintenance was insufficient all along. Thanks to the tenacity of Tony Daunt and the success of this lawsuit, Michigan is returning to its tradition of keeping clean and accurate voter rolls.”
Plaintiff Daunt said this:
“The National Voter Registration Act protects the franchise of every Michigan voter, and it’s disappointing — but not surprising — that it took a federal lawsuit to force Secretary Benson to comply with election law. Election integrity matters, and today’s agreement means the state of Michigan will finally comply with laws that protect it. I’m grateful for the incredible work of the Honest Elections Project and the success of this lawsuit in cleaning Michigan’s voter rolls.”
For her part, Benson said her office has taken steps to “responsibly maintain the state’s voter list” since her first day in office. Those efforts include joining the Electronic Registration Information Center, proposing bipartisan legislation to give clerks more tools to update registrations, mailing absentee voting applications to all registered voters and using that mailing to — and we repeat what we started this article with — “carry out the largest and most transparent list cleanup IN A DECADE.”