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Could a super achiever fix an underperforming system?

Mar 23, 2017

Jocelyn Benson stood in line for two hours waiting to vote last November, holding her five-month-old son Aiden all the while. “I had to put him down and change his diaper twice,” she told me, smiling. Benson lives and votes in Detroit, where there are often too few voting places and machines for large turnout elections.

Other people have told me similar stories—except they had only an hour for lunch, or a houseful of kids, and so they gave up, or never even tried to vote.

In Indiana or Ohio or most other states, they would have had more choices. They could have voted on a different day. Or they just could have requested an absentee ballot.

But Michigan makes it much harder to vote. We have no early voting, and Republicans, especially those in the state Senate, have done everything they could to limit absentee voting to a very small group, mainly the elderly and those who are going to be out of town on business.

They do this deliberately. They know those people forced to stand in line for hours aren’t voting for them. Republicans mostly get votes from more affluent people whose lives and occupations offer more flexibility.

But the kicker is this—Benson, who played by the rules to make a point, is indeed not a Republican. But she is not poor and disadvantaged either. She is, in fact, a super achiever of stunning proportions whose resume sounds like a novel. She went to prestigious Wellesley College, got a master’s degree from Oxford University in England, and then went to Harvard Law School.

She’s worked as an investigative journalist for the Southern Poverty Law Center, clerked for a federal judge, and then became dean of Wayne State Law School at age 35—the youngest female dean of a major U.S. law school in history.

Last year, she stepped down to become CEO of something called RISE—the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality. It's a program that seeks to use the unifying power of sports to improve race relations and make social progress happen.

Oh, and she also ran the Boston Marathon while eight months pregnant. Her husband, Ryan Friedrichs, joined the army as an enlisted man in his mid-30s, became a paratrooper and jumped out of planes in Afghanistan. No, Benson wouldn’t have had to stand in lines to vote—but she knows plenty of other women and men who would.

And she wants to do something about it. As far as I know, she has only suffered one failure in life. Seven years ago, she was the Democratic nominee for Michigan Secretary of State. She ran ahead of the rest of her ticket in one of the worst years for Democrats in state history, but still lost. Next year, however, the seat will be open again.

Benson isn’t running—yet. But I bet she will.

She has, naturally, written an excellent book on what secretaries of state do. Frankly, I’d be in favor of anyone who could do something to make voting easier and more fair. And if she could also convince people she could cut down the waiting time for driver’s license renewals…well, she just might win.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.