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Michigan Secretary Of State On Trump's Threat To Withhold Funding Over Mail-In Votes


A false claim by the president yesterday called attention to voting during a pandemic. The president's inaccurate tweet claimed that Michigan sent out millions of absentee ballots. Michigan did not do that. The president later deleted his false claim, which fits a broader pattern of false claims to raise fears about mail-in balloting. There are real-life issues here about election security, so let's explore them with Michigan's Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who is on the line. And I'm going to embarrass you, Madam Secretary, by noting that you were also a former NPR intern. So welcome back.

JOCELYN BENSON: I'm proud of that, not embarrassed. Thank you.


INSKEEP: That's great. It's good to talk with you. All right. We've noted you didn't send out millions of absentee ballots, but you sent out something. What did you do?

BENSON: Yeah, we sent out applications to every registered voter reminding them that they have a right to vote by mail and trying to give them the certainty of how they could exercise that right and do so equally so that every registered voter would have equal access to exercising that right.

INSKEEP: OK. So you sent out applications, meaning that people could fill out that application or, I assume, go online and fill out an application there. That's how you would do it?

BENSON: Yes. The application is and always has been available on our website. And mailing applications directly to voters ensures that, especially at this time of great uncertainty, citizens have that clarity of exactly how to express their right to vote by mail if they choose to do so.

INSKEEP: You have noted that Republican officials in other states have done the very same thing that you've done. But why did you decide it was necessary to do this - to send it out so widely?

BENSON: Well, right. Essentially everyone has the authority to mail applications. For us, many already started to do that, including some local clerks, which we support. And we wanted to ensure that no voter would - or I should say every voter would receive an application to vote by mail so that they would have equal access to choosing that right. And then, secondly, recognizing that in the midst of this pandemic - and with the receipt of federal funds provided by the CARES Act that's explicitly designated for adapting during this pandemic to our elections - we thought it was even more important to give citizens that certainty that our elections will happen and their right to vote by mail will be secure.

INSKEEP: Well, now let's talk about the security there because, the president's false claims aside, some people would naturally wonder about that. What really is the risk with mail-in ballots of some kind of fraud, and how do you manage that risk?

BENSON: Well, just like states have been doing this for decades, we have a signature match program in place to provide a check and ensure that everyone who fills out and returns their ballot by mail is the same person who requested it, is the same person who registered to vote by mail. They have to sign the outside of the envelope that returns their ballot, just like they sign their application form to request that ballot and they sign the registration form. So by confirming that all those signatures match, we're able to confirm the identity of a voter. And you know, it's much more difficult to forge a signature than it is even to create a fake ID. So we feel this is a secure way. And also, these are paper ballots. That can't be hacked. So it's also a way for us to ensure we have a verified paper trail and can conduct any post-election audits, which we also will be doing.

INSKEEP: OK, paper ballots - that's good. Hard to reproduce a signature - that's good. But I'm also thinking of some county clerk looking at thousands and thousands of these envelopes and wondering if they would really get that right.

BENSON: Well, we are training our clerks and working with our Bureau of Elections to ensure - again, building off the success of states like Colorado and Washington, who've been doing this for decades - that we're using the best technologies and setting statewide standards to help evaluate those signatures and ensure that if they don't match or if there's any questions, our local election officials are also empowered to check back with the voter to help them verify or cure their signature in time to count it. We'll also be implementing a ballot tracking system so that every voter can track when their ballot's been received and counted. So if they see or catch any improprieties there, they can report it and address it as well.

INSKEEP: Oh - like if, for example, I haven't voted yet and suddenly I get a notice that I voted, I might be able to call out some fraud. OK.

BENSON: Exactly, right.

INSKEEP: Let me ask more broadly, though, what are security threats in this fall's election that you regard as serious, as real, that keep you up at night?

BENSON: Yeah, there's two, really. One is security threats to our infrastructure, the types of hacking - you know, changing votes, things that we hear about. We're conducting our - for the first time statewide post-election audits, risk-limiting audits to protect our infrastructure. The second thing is misinformation - people trying to hack our voters' minds, whether it be foreign adversaries or political leaders here in our country who will spread misinformation about our citizens' rights, about whether our elections will even happen. We feel that voter education and clarity about their rights this year is going to be critical, important now more than ever, and I consider it a security risk whenever anyone tries to infiltrate our voters' minds with false information about their rights.

INSKEEP: You mentioned the infrastructure, trying to keep it secure against hacking. I'm presuming the federal government has a lot of relevant expertise and could help you if they want to. The president has raised doubts about election interference, but other people in the federal government have said otherwise. Is the federal government, in your experiencing - in your experience, acknowledging a real threat here and offering you help?

BENSON: Yes. I mean, of course, the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed Russian interference in the 2016 election. And the Department of Homeland Security has been a strong partner. The Election Assistance Commission has been a strong partner with our state and with other states. And to me, election security, just like democracy, is about partnerships and working together to handle every potential threat. So we've been grateful for many of the leaders in the executive level as well as the legislative side of the federal government who've been reaching out and working with us at the state and local level in Michigan to protect the security of our elections.

INSKEEP: You're hearing from the FBI or from various intelligence agencies, anybody who has expertise - you're hearing from them?

BENSON: Exactly. They have reached out proactively to us. They have offered to speak with our local clerks. We have a decentralized election system in our state - 1,500 localities. So we've worked to connect them with our local jurisdictions, too. And it's been, you know, frankly, a very fruitful partnership, one in which information is shared and collaboration is fruitful. So I'm proud of that, and I'm, you know, thankful for the federal funding, as well, that's been allocated to our state for election security.

INSKEEP: We've just got a few seconds, Secretary Benson, but I want to ask you about the president visiting a Ford factory later today. Masks are required. The state attorney general said he has a legal responsibility to wear a mask. He doesn't like to do that. Do you agree that he has a legal responsibility to wear a mask in that factory?

BENSON: Oh, yes, absolutely - a legal and, you know, a moral responsibility if we all - we all do right now to protect the health and safety of ourselves and those around us. So I hope he'll comply with the basic health and safety guidelines of our state that every citizen's complying with right now to keep us all healthy.

INSKEEP: Secretary Benson, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

BENSON: Likewise. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Jocelyn Benson is the secretary of state for Michigan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.