Republican Mary Treder Lang and Democrat Jocelyn Benson both call for expanding the list of things that residents do online or at alternative locations, such as renewing license plates, and each supports no-reason absentee voting. They also tout their backgrounds outside politics — Treder Lang is an accountant who has worked in management in the business and nonprofit sectors, and Benson is an election law expert who leads a nonprofit and is former dean of a law school.
It would be the first time either was elected to statewide office — something they wear as badges of honor: Treder Lang touts her "real world experience," and Benson says she doesn't "come at this as a government bureaucrat." Benson ran unsuccessfully for the office in 2010, and Treder Lang lost a race for the state Legislature a decade ago.
Treder Lang says she seeks to launch a mobile app, expand the ability to digitally reserve a place in line to all secretary of state branches and other steps with the ultimate goal of limiting office visits to once every eight years for most residents. Benson , who also proposes expanding online services, says nobody should have to wait more than 30 minutes to renew a driver's license, register a vehicle or vote.
They also agree on allowing no-reason absentee voting, but it's the way to accomplish it that exposes a gulf between them. It's one issue among many lumped into a ballot initiative related to expanding voting methods and options. The provision also would allow same-day voter registration and straight-party voting, automatically register people when they conduct business with the secretary of state unless they opt out and lock into the state constitution laws already in place such as sending absentee ballots to military or overseas voters at least 45 days before an election, ensuring secret ballots and auditing election results.
Benson, 40, supports the many efforts in one proposal, calling it a "collection of the best practices of election laws around the country," while Treder Lang says it's a largely duplicative initiative that will "add more bureaucracy, red tape and government regulations."
Treder Lang, 58, said she'd prefer pulling out the worthwhile pieces that aren't already in the law as stand-alone bills. One aspect she staunchly opposes is same-day registration. Among her concerns: More time is needed to process registrations and "ensure we have viable voters."
"You thought lines were long now? Imagine us all showing up on the same day to register," she said. "Not only do you have to go to the clerk's office (to register), but then you have to find your precinct."
Benson said her research suggests the system would not be overwhelmed.
"Clerks across the country who have implemented these specific reforms have demonstrated it's possible to do it effectively and securely," she said. "We would bring in clerks from other states who have already met this challenge and have them advise us on best practices."
Treder Lang has endorsements from two previous GOP secretaries of state: Terri Lynn Land and Candice Miller. Benson, who would be the first Democrat to hold the post in more than two decades, has been endorsed by Chris Thomas, Michigan's election director for 36 years until retiring last year.
Current office-holder Ruth Johnson, a Republican, is term-limited and cannot run again.
Both candidates say the office needs to update its services, and Treder Lang said she can accomplish that with a background in computer security that no other secretary of state has had. Benson, who wrote a book about the role secretaries of state play in elections, said the office would benefit from her expertise on elections and election-related laws.
"Regardless of the party in charge we haven't had proactive leadership in that office," Benson said. "Other states have passed us by with election security, voter access and how branches operate."
As of mid-September, Benson had raised $1.16 million and had roughly $950,000 in campaign contributions on hand. Treder Lang had raised $319,000 and had about $46,000 on hand.
Other candidates running for the office are Libertarian Gregory Stempfle and Robert Gale of the U.S. Taxpayers Party.