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Elections, Campaign Finance Issues In Secretary of State Race

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The secretary of state is Michigan’s top elections official, but concerns over information embedded in enhanced driver’s licenses and hefty fees for bad drivers have made other aspects of the job equally visible.

Candidates for the $124,900-a-year job include Republican Ruth Johnson, who has spent six years as Oakland County clerk, and Democrat Jocelyn Benson, a Detroit law professor who has worked as a voting rights policy coordinator.

Three third-party candidates also are running: Green Party candidate John Anthony La Pietra, U.S. Taxpayers Party candidate Robert Gale and Libertarian Party candidate Scotty Boman.

Most support repealing high fees assessed on bad drivers, arguing that it makes driving and insurance more difficult to afford. State lawmakers are considering bills that would partially repeal the fees in 2012.

Benson is a strong advocate for voters’ rights. Johnson is campaigning, in part, on the integrity of elections, and said she has the background to do the job.

“I’m not running on promises. I’m running on proven results,” said Johnson, a former Oakland County commissioner and state representative.

During her tenure as clerk, the office has improved online services, cut 20 percent of its staff and $1 million from the budget. Johnson also put campaign donation records of local candidates and committees online for public scrutiny.

If elected in November, Johnson said she would work to create an elections crime unit to look into election fraud across the state.

Benson teaches at Wayne State University. She worked from 2002-2004 as voting rights policy coordinator with the Harvard Civil Rights Project. She testified in 2008 before Congress on the illegality of preventing homeowners facing foreclosure from voting and has published a book on the secretary of state’s role in enforcing campaign finance law.

“I do think this election is going to be about experience,” Benson said. “My experience is fighting for people and putting people first.”

Republican Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land is unable to run again after serving eight years because of term limits. Land has been credited with updating the office’s technology, keeping spending in line and improving customer service across the state.

Those duties are important, but secondary to the office’s primary task, according to La Pietra of the Green Party.

“The function — to me — is elections,” said La Pietra, an attorney from Marshall. “There is room to work toward more open enforcement of election and campaign finance rules and laws.”

Benson wants to cut unnecessary costs and review branch closures. She envisions branches also helping to deliver other state services with kiosks in grocery stores and banks.

Johnson said she also would look to partner with the private and public sectors to help drive down costs and increase convenience for patrons. Sharing building space would decrease “brick and mortar costs” associated with running branch offices, she said.

The operation should be downsized, said Gale, a self-employed Sterling Heights businessman who’s running on the U.S. Taxpayer’s Party ticket.

“We need to put money back into people’s pockets,” he said. “I would propose to privatize the whole system. Private enterprise works better than any government.”

That includes having a private company run state elections, Gale added.

“I’m not here to do what’s popular,” he said. “I’m a taxpayer, not a politician.”

Libertarian Party candidate Boman wants to draw attention to radio-frequency identification devices and the national REAL ID Act, which requires states to make driver’s licenses more secure before they can be used as valid forms of identification at places such as airports.

The more secure driver’s licenses require state officials to verify applicants’ birth certificates, Social Security numbers and immigration status. The federal law is scheduled to go into effect May 10, 2011.

Radio-frequency identification devices — or RFID chips — are imbedded in Michigan’s enhanced driver’s licenses and were added to U.S. passports in 2006.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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