S2E24 – HTWM Live at the US Alliance for Election Excellence with Michigan’s Jocelyn Benson and Colorado’s Pam Anderson
In February, High Turnout Wide Margins was invited to do a live recording at the first in-person meeting of the US Alliance for Election Excellence – a nonpartisan collaborative of election administrators and subject matter experts.
Hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey spoke with two election administrators that night – Jocelyn Benson, the Michigan Secretary of State, and Pam Anderson, who ran for Colorado Secretary of State and has a long history of working in Colorado elections.
High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman
Transcription of the episode is as follows:
[High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]
Managing Producer Aaron Hay: You're listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, an insider's look at election administration hosted by Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey.
I’m Managing Producer Aaron Hay, and in February, we were invited to do a live recording at the first in-person meeting of the US Alliance for Election Excellence – a nonpartisan collaborative of election administrators and subject matter experts.
Hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey spoke with two election administrators that night – Jocelyn Benson, the Michigan Secretary of State, and Pam Anderson who ran for Colorado Secretary of State and has a long history of working in Colorado elections.
First up is Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
Jocelyn Benson – Michigan Secretary of State
Eric Fey: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another exciting episode of High Turnout Wide Margins.
Eric Fey: I am Eric Fey, Director of elections in St. Louis County, Missouri. My co-host is –
Brianna Lennon: Brianna Lennon, County Clerk in Boone County, Missouri.
Eric Fey: And today our guest is –
Jocelyn Benson: Hi, I'm Jocelyn Benson. I'm the Secretary of State of Michigan.
Eric Fey: Thank you so much for being here. For making the time.
Jocelyn Benson: Thanks for having me. I wish I could be there in person. I was told I was coming on a podcast. If I knew it was like this big thing, I would have tried to be there in person.
Jocelyn Benson: But it's good to see this great crowd.
Eric Fey: This podcast is always a big deal.
Eric Fey: Yeah, and I just want to make one disclaimer really quick, Secretary Benson – Brianna disclosed to me once that her dream is to be Jocelyn Benson when she grows up. So, I don't know how she's gonna go here, so…
Brianna Lennon: I mean he's not – he's not lying, either. I think I have said that.
So, no, we really- we really do appreciate you coming on. You are the first secretary of state that we have had the opportunity to talk to, so it's very exciting for us, too.
Jocelyn Benson: Aw. I’m honored. Thank you.
Brianna Lennon: And I'm sure a lot of people here know a lot about your background, but we would just really love to hear your story of how you got involved in elections and came to be the Secretary of State of Michigan.
Jocelyn Benson: Thank you, first, for everything you all do. We wouldn't have a democracy without you, as you all know. Thank you for all you've endured, and all the toil and hard work that you've done behind the scenes. You guys are the real champions and defenders of democracy, and I just – I'm grateful that you all exist. So, thank you for signing up to do the work you do and doing it with grace and with dignity and with strength – every day.
I got started – I started my career, as I think so many of you know, in Alabama – in Montgomery – investigating hate crimes and hate groups around the country. A lot of it was undercover, but it was in the sort of weekends when I would go around to civil rights places where there were significant moments historically for the civil rights movement.
And in sort of studying the civil rights movement from the that perspective, it really became clear to me that it was in Selma at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the heart of everything that the entire movement was about really came to the forefront. And the Voting Rights Act emerged out of that moment, that all of – I mean, people were killed so that you could be registered to vote, or, you know, beaten just so that they could go to the registrar's office and register and then later on vote, and those who stood on the front lines of just trying to make sure others could have that right – and my gratitude to them as well – was what made me feel that the best work I could do to make our country better was just ensure that everyone else had a voice and that voice was heard and their votes were counted, and that one person, one vote promise in our constitution was a reality for everyone.
So, I became a lawyer because I thought the best way I could do that was by suing my way to equality, and I later found that that was only part of the work. That in fact, as the administrators here know, it's all the work that goes into an election that actually preserves the ability for citizens to have that right to vote realized and hold their elected officials accountable.
And so I wrote a book on Secretaries of State because I wanted to tell the world like, "You guys vote for these people in most cases,” and voters should know that when they cast their vote for a Secretary of State, or even at the local level for a clerk, that you are choosing the person who will protect and guard your voice and all other elections. And if you can – if you choose someone who's not committed to that, then everything else that you try to vote for or fight for falls away.
And that. Well, I mean, to be honest, I thought —I was a law professor at the time—no one's was gonna vote for me, but I can at least be a candidate and run for office and push whoever ultimately got, in my case, the Democratic Party's nomination —this was back in 2010— I could push them to work harder and take this job seriously, instead of just seeing it as a stepping stone to other higher office.
And I took this so seriously that no one else really got in the race.
I became the nominee, and then – turns out a lot of voters really liked what I had to say, and I came really close to winning in 2010, and then became the dean of a law school, ran again in 2018. I think because at that point, like everyone in Michigan was like, "Just let her have the job already. If she wants to be Secretary of State for 15 years. Let's just let her do it."
Eric Fey: So, Secretary Benson, on the podcast we've had at least a couple of Michigan guests on. Things really popped off in 2020 in Michigan, to say the least. From tiny Antrim County all the way up to Detroit, it was very contentious. And could you talk about how did you work with the plethora of local election officials you have in Michigan to respond to all that?
Jocelyn Benson: Yeah, we have 1,600 jurisdictions in Michigan, 83 counties, and then at the local level about 1520, city and township clerks. And so our election system, like many states is very decentralized, and because of that everyone has their roles and responsibilities. So, when you have essentially a – let's call it an attack or a problem in one or an area – one area like say in Antrim County – it's somewhat localized, which was, you know, real, but not the not the issue. There was no real issue in Antrim County, other than just like a download that needed to be completed, and then it was later addressed and fixed. But so much though that even if it was a small issue that never would have really had an impact on the election, it still can be utilized and metastasized to impact the entire country's view of our elections.
And so – and I think all of us know that that like you have one small thing that could bubble up, one thorn in a very, very large garden and that becomes the – what is used for political purposes to try to sow seeds of doubt in the system. And so I think what we really did, there actually was – there was not as much coordination going into 2020 as there is now because we learned how important it is to have that consistent dialogue. And it's hard when you have that many clerks to really build that out.
But in 2020, our consistent dialogue and our coordination was about the pandemic response and how to make sure everyone had the resources they needed in the midst of a pandemic and in the midst of our first statewide election when a whole host of new policies were in place – because voters amended our constitution in 2018 to create same day registration and automatic voter registration and no reason absentee voting. And so we had to make sure – we were already playing to make sure that we're drop boxes everywhere and that we had the technology needed to securely register someone on election day and make sure they could still vote – then educate voters about all that.
So our coordination was sort of in response to these kind of dual pressures or challenges that we were meeting together as a community, and that caused us to with, you know, data and research and all the work that had gone into trying to solve some of the problems we were solving – execute an election, or actually several elections, over the course of the year, in a way where we were constantly meeting the moment. But not really in the coordination as much as just kind of like – shared trauma, and like, you know, like being forced to figure it out together. But after the fact, at least, I looked around and said, "I need – we need to have- start having like regular conversations to prepare for '22."
And that's actually what went into '22 that enabled us to have a very smooth election cycle, in part because we were really intent on learning so much from what we learned individually and learning so much from each other after the 2020 election cycle, if that makes sense.
So, to sort of put a bow on it – from my standpoint, we as a community in Michigan have only gotten stronger and stronger and stronger with every challenge that we've met, because we've gotten better and better and better. And I'm sure folks all around the country feel this too, and in so many ways, that's the work that we are engaged in – taking all the challenges we meet as election officials and using them to make us better at our jobs. And that's what we're working towards in Michigan.
Brianna Lennon: So I know, we don't have a ton of time with you today, but one thing that I have – you've touched on it, and I think that it really rounds out the theme of what we've been talking about here today and what you brought up about working together on things and having so much talent and best practices – but one of the things that is very noticeable, I think, about your tenure as Secretary of State is that you are very hands on, and you care about what all of the different aspects of the job are. You want to talk to people about how they do their jobs and due process improvements, and it’s very policy oriented. And you know, not always just, "Well, here's an edict that we have put down and now everybody needs to figure out how to do it. I don't really care how you do it, just get it done." You care very much about how things operate, and I wondered if you could touch really briefly on how you take that mindset as Secretary of State, and how it's translated into working with local election authorities.
Jocelyn Benson: I mean, I have just as you can see enormous respect for everyone in our elections process – even if we don't agree all the time because we shouldn't. Like that is how we get better also by disagreeing and learning together and compromising and learning from each other.
And second, I'm a down up person, not a top down. My parents were teachers, and I was always – I grew up in this environment where they always were being told things by the principal and administration and having to implement things that didn't really make sense to them in the classroom but were told to them by others that they had to do. And so deeply instilled in me is this recognition that you have to think about how things are going to play out on the ground, and that may be different in Grand Rapids versus Detroit versus Houghton and versus, you know, Hillsdale or Washtenaw County in Michigan. And so you just have to be mindful of that and that reality. And then find, again, a way to make that an advantage, a benefit. That through flexibility at the local level – where we set goals together perhaps at the state level, but allow for respect and flexibility to play out at the local level and listen to each other and try to meet each other's needs, then we can actually succeed together.
And the bottom line is, and I tell this to clerks all the time in our state, like we're all in this together, at every point in this process, like we're all bought into this system succeeding. And so let's focus on that and not forget that and recognize that together by listening to each other and collaborating and supporting each other. Like, that's how we get to success. And so – and then you just learned, I mean, I love that aspect of the process.
The other part of it is, I really sometimes resent being – having to do this job in this political ecosystem, because I'm not – I came to this as this as like a law professor and a policy advocate, and I know many of you are sort of feel that way, as well. We do this work in politics, but we're not political. I worry with the increasing spotlight on Secretaries of State, you're gonna see more people seeing it as a stepping stone to celebrity or other positions, as opposed to like really, really important work.
And I don't know how we guard against that – other than making sure, frankly, that you all as election administrators, don't give up on the process. I know this is really hard work, but if you all leave, there is a strong likelihood in this moment that your vacancy could be filled by people who won't have the best interest of the system or the voters in mind, but instead their own agendas, and then that can be true of folks on both sides of the aisle.
Eric Fey: Amen.
Managing Producer Aaron Hay: You’re listening to High Turnout Wide Margins – a podcast that explores local election administration – I’m Managing Producer Aaron Hay.
You just heard from Michigan’s Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson at the first in-person meeting of the US Alliance for Election Excellence – a nonpartisan collaborative of election administrators and subject matter experts.
Hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey were invited to record the podcast live at this meeting. Next up is Pam Anderson, who has been working in Colorado election administration for many years.
Pam Anderson – Colorado.
Brianna Lennon: So, our first question is always how did you get involved in elections in the first place? I know you've done a number of different election jobs in different capacities, but what started everything off?
Pam Anderson: I had a couple of little kids, and we went to the Rec Center, and there was a petition circulating outside my Rec Center about the salary of the elected clerk and treasurer, and they wanted, they wanted to oppose the council, the city council's effort to reduce the salary.
And showed me the petition, read all the things, and it made sense to me, and I went home and called my council members [and] said, “What the heck are you doing?” And it turns out, the people circulating the petition were committing petition fraud because they had put a cover sheet over with a false narrative to get people to sign it, and then they were running a candidate for City Clerk.
And I said, “Well, that's not right,” and so, I ran for City Clerk, and then I ran for County Clerk – Jefferson County, Colorado, in Golden – we make beer there, among other things, and then we're term limited there, and so, since then I've been working with local election officials. I was executive director at the County Clerk's Association in Colorado. As a county clerk, I served on the Board for our Association. I love Association work and professionalism in the space. I love local election officials and the work that they do, and that's been my life work.
Eric Fey: So, as a little background – in Missouri, last year, our State Association we amended our bylaws and hired an executive director for our state association for the first time.
Eric Fey: And a big part of it was Pam coming to our annual conference and selling it to the members who, you know, some were a little iffy on it, and after Pam spoke, then we took a vote, and nobody voted against it. So, pretty cool.
Eric Fey: And so you're doing all this work with a local with local election officials, you've been a local election official, what made you want to go over to the dark side being the Secretary of State. Tell us about that?
Pam Anderson: Well, I didn't know if it's insanity – like the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over,” and so, it was my fourth campaign because I ran as a nonpartisan municipal clerk. It was only mostly appointed in Colorado – nonpartisan appointed, and it was one of three in Colorado that were elected. I just happened to live there, and it was elected. I had no interest in being an elected official, necessarily. I love the policy side.
Representing the County Clerks of Colorado – we built some really good things in Colorado, some amazing things,
Pam Anderson: And it was a process. It was an evolution. We didn't flip a switch and COVID flipped a switch. COVID flipped a switch, but we took we took our time, and it was a battle. When we passed our reform in 2013, 94% of our local election officials, our county clerk voted for it, and we have to take a supermajority to support it. We didn't get a single Republican vote.
I identify as a Republican – I'm gonna put it right out there for you.
Pam Anderson: I'm a conservative, and I believe in this stuff because of American values, and I believe that local election officials believe that too. Whether you're elected or appointed or a poll worker or whatever you do. And what we built in Colorado was being eroded by an anomaly, in my opinion. It was devastating to see a local election official violate the professional ethics that we all hold.
Brianna Lennon: So, in my opinion, even though you were not successful in the general, it was a triumph that you came through the primary, and it made a big difference and it said something, I think to people that Tina Peters did not win, and I would love for you to talk a little bit about what it was like campaigning – literally up against the narrative that we all hear, but we don't necessarily all have to fight against to keep our jobs. A lot of us, you know, I was unopposed. I know that the narrative is out there, but I didn't have to deal with it every day. You were in the room with a lot of these things. How did you convince them?
Pam Anderson: So, there's this phrase with my county clerks in Colorado – they call it “Pam-splaining.”
Pam Anderson: It’s actually something they say. I'm a little embarrassed by it. I'm gonna say it out loud, but it's what I do. I love it. I love talking about this stuff, I love expressing my passion for it, and I honestly believe that given enough moments and time – I went into some pretty interesting rooms, right? Like, there were, I would go, there were three of us in the primary, and, you know, one was Tina Peters. We had another candidate – Mr. O'Donnell who is also I would categorize a skeptic. Not quite as vociferous, if you want to call it that. I call it “anti-evidence.” I don't know how else to put it, and we would be up there, and I viscerally saw changing hearts and minds in those rooms. And these are people that expressed very strong feelings.
Yes. You guys have – who else has been in these rooms?
You go through, you talk about the process, you have observer come in, you mind numb them to – I heard someone else talking about that – and you show them the process, and, you know, that makes a difference. And that outreach, that opportunity, that transparency – matters.
Yes, things can be weaponized, but the fight is worth it. And the reason I love this work is that the national narrative and trust me – my team, my tribe – everyone should stand up against their tribe, it's not easy to do, but if you believe they're wrong, you should do it. You should do it.
And it's important to stand up and do that when it's right. To join with those of like mind because there are values that circumvent this. Even when they yell at ya, right? Maybe it's age or running for office a few times, or, frankly, you election officials – you're perfectly primed for this environment, because you get hollered at all the time in the customer service environment.
So, you know what? I would love it for more local election officials, you know, to be the grown up in the room, right? You say it in a way that is respectful because there are people out there that don't get what we do and they have genuine questions and most of them are persuadable when they have more information, period. That was my experience. The exception are those that want to take advantage of the opportunity for personal or political gain or financial gain. And that's what we're combating.
Brianna Lennon: You had mentioned, and you and I had talked a little bit earlier about how so much has changed from the last time you ran for office and now. And you touched on some of it. Has there been, have you seen anything positive come out of more, perhaps more voter interest in the races than there used to be? Or, you know, I, lots of times people run for local office especially and they have to explain what the job is first, before they even get to asking for somebody to vote for them, because nobody knows what we actually do. Did you see anything positive that you didn't see the last time that you ran?
Pam Anderson: Well, I guess you can consider [it] a positive we don't have to explain we're election officials and what they do.
So, Secretary of State races have a much higher profile. I am all evidence to the contrary an introvert, and so there were things about the campaign that were uncomfortable, but one of the things that I will have forever is that I got to share the cover of Time magazine with Secretary Benson.
Pam Anderson: Yeah. Like those were good things.
It’s an honorable profession and don't shy away from using your platform to be the grown up in the room, but also to say why this is so important. If you don't know how to do it, there are people that can help you figure out how to do that. I am camera adverse. When I heard the podcast, I was like “Right on!” When I heard it was videotaped, I'm like, “Oh god.”
Pam Anderson: That's never going to change. Ever. But sometimes the mission is worth it, and you guys have a mission and, I think, a responsibility and obligation to support your profession. To say what we do is honorable and hard, and you're wrong or you're right. And bring all those people in because that is what changes those hearts and the minds. I see – getting those messages from both partisan Secretaries of State was a good thing. I have optimism. I have a lot of optimism. I need to detox a little – this is true. But it was a mission and it's for those of us – and the only reason you're doing this is not for the money. The only reason you're doing this is for the mission. So, you should talk about it.
Brianna Lennon: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Brianna Lennon, alongside Eric Fey. Thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our Managing Editor is Rebecca Smith. Our Managing Producer is Aaron Hay, and our Associate Producers are Abigail Ruhman and Katie Quinn. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins, and thanks for listening.