Michigan's Secretary of State serves two main functions, as the state's leading elections official and as the primary regulator of driving and licensing issues.
Accusations & A Tight Race
But this year's Secretary of State race has become a bit more complicated. To hear Democratic nominee Jocelyn Benson and Republican candidate Ruth Johnson tell the tale, there are some dark forces at play in the race for Michigan Secretary of State. Claim's of campaign funding from "shadowy" and "fringe" organizations come from both sides.
When you get through all the muck and accusations, two candidates emerge in a very close race that could go either way.
"Absolutely. Particularly this year, it's an open seat," says Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. He says Johnson and Benson, "are both imminently qualified people to do a very good job, even though they have very different backgrounds."
Johnson is a former state representative from Oakland County, where she now serves as county clerk. Ballenger points out that her current responsibilities are a small-scale version of what the Secretary of State does as an elections official.
Benson is an election law professor at Wayne State University who attended Harvard Law School and is not a native of Michigan, drawing some similarities with Governor Granholm. And the parallels between Benson and Granholm don't end there. Benson is also starting a career in Michigan politics as a relative unknown with a huge groundswell of support from the Democratic Party.
"What you're seeing, and I think where our support's coming from are people who recognize that the sun has set on politics as usual in Michigan," says Benson. "And if you want to know the clearest difference, to me, between my opponent and myself, I believe it's time to start doing things differently in Michigan."
Benson says that includes electing a Democrat to replace Republican Secretary of State Terry Lynn Land, who is term limited.
But for all the bickering between Benson and Johnson over who is working with which shadowy organizations, and where campaign funds are coming from, they agree an awful lot on some of the changes they would like to see in the Secretary of State's office.
As Ruth Johnson puts it: "Provide more convenience and less cost by providing services through the public sector, and also we need to partner more with the private sector so people are able to get their services quickly, easily, and at low cost."
And they'd both like to see the elimination of the state's annual driver responsibility fee, and make voting as easy and reliable as possible for troops serving overseas. They disagree on whether senior citizens should take eye exams more often, and whether there should be early voting, or voting on multiple days.
A Party-Line Decision?
Ballenger says the race for Secretary of State could come down to how people vote on other areas of the ballot, such as in the race for governor, where Republican nominee Rick Snyder leads Democratic nominee Virg Bernero by wide margins in many polls.
"If Jocelyn Benson was running in 2006 or 2008, I'd say she'd be almost a slam dunk to win. Unfortunately for her, this is not 2006 or 2008. It's 2010. And this looks to be a Republican year, and the question is, can she buck the tide?"
If Benson does win, she'll be the first Democratic Secretary of State since Richard Austin was in office 16 years ago.
If Johnson wins, she will be the third Republican woman to hold the position since then.