While attention has been focused on the over-the-top power grab by desperate Republican legislators in Wisconsin—who last week voted to disempower an incoming Democratic governor and attorney general who defeated Republican incumbents on November 6—something equally nefarious is taking place in Michigan.
As in Wisconsin, where Democrats won every statewide constitutional office for the first time since 1982, Michigan Democrats won the offices of governor, attorney general, and secretary of state for the first time since 1986. As in Wisconsin, Michigan Republicans continue to control a gerrymandered state legislature. And, as in Wisconsin, Michigan Republicans are—in the words of The Detroit News—advancing “a slew of lame-duck power play proposals” to strip powers away from the governor and the attorney general and thwart the will of the people.
A Detroit Free Press assessment of the scheming to undermine Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel characterized the Republican legislators who are scheming to undermine the newly elected Democrats as “juvenile vandals laying waste to Michigan’s executive branch.”
That’s a fair description of the general project—in Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states where Republicans who suffered electoral setbacks on November 6 are seeking to shift authority away from statewide winners and toward gerrymandered legislatures.
But Michigan Republicans are taking an additional step that is particularly corrosive to democracy. They are conspiring to prevent newly elected Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson from enforcing the state’s campaign finance laws.
The Republican-controlled state Senate has endorsed a plan to shift oversight of campaign finance away from the secretary of state’s office to a committee made up of political insiders selected by the two major parties. The proposal now goes to the Republican-controlled state House.
Noting that, by electing Benson, the people of Michigan had “voted for a fair, transparent, accountable and accessible democracy,” a spokesperson for the incoming Secretary of State complained that, “Legislative Republicans are now trying to thwart the will of the voters with bills that ignore their voices, defies history and will make Michigan a national punch line by effectively ending enforcement of the campaign finance laws they are required to abide by.”
That is a fair characterization of what is happening.
Benson was elected as a reformer—and an expert in election law. A Harvard Law School graduate who served as general editor of the the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review and as voting rights policy coordinator of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, she was active in efforts to enact the federal Help America Vote Act, worked on voting rights and election law issues with the the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and at age 35 became the dean of Wayne State Law School. A member of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Election Law, and the founder of the Michigan Center for Election Law, she literally wrote the book—State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process—on how secretaries of state can and must adopt best practices to promote fair elections and honest political practices.
During the 2018 campaign, Benson identified the protection of voting rights and promotion of transparency as top priorities. She ran on a promise to “champion reforms that will shine a light on the secret money flowing into the state’s election process and requiring instant disclosure of all political and lobbying money.”
“Disclosure is the best way to limit the corrupting influence of money in politics. Citizens have a right to know who is funding candidates for elected office and who is bankrolling the advertisements they see on television,” declared Benson, whose campaign announced that her goal was “to make Michigan one of the best states in the nation when it comes to transparency and accountability.”
That was a winning message. Voters chose Benson over her Republican rival by a 53-44 margin. The first Democrat elected to the post since 1990, she comes with a clear mandate. Yet, Republicans are rejecting that mandate with a scheme to collapse oversight of campaign finance issues into a so-called “fair political practices commission,” which would replicate the mess that exists at the national level with the Federal Election Commission—where partisan deadlocks have rendered the agency dysfunctional.
Michigan’s Senate Republicans have now voted for the plan to rest oversight responsibilities with a party-defined panel made up of three Republicans and three Democrats. That’s a recipe for inaction. As Craig Mauger, the director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, explained it: “The fear I have is that this commission will not be able to accomplish anything because of the 3-3 divide and because these commission members will be accountable to the political parties and not the voters like the secretary of state.”
Blasting Republican legislators for using a lame-duck session of the legislature to undermine a new secretary of state who “wants to clean up the cesspool of money in politics,” Genesee County Clerk John Gleason, a former legislator from the Flint area, summed things up when he described the GOP plan as “about the most perfect example of the fox guarding the henhouse that I’ve ever seen.”