Hakeem Jefferson, Jennifer Chudy, Jocelyn Benson
Clockwise from top right: Michigan secretary of state Jocelyn Benson ’99, Knafel Assistant Professor of Social Sciences Jennifer Chudy, and assistant professor of political science at Stanford Hakeem Jefferson.

#WellesleyVotes Draws to a Close with a Panel on the 2020 Election Results

November 20, 2020

“The will of the people is clear,” said Jocelyn Benson ’99, Michigan’s 43rd secretary of state, during a #WellesleyVotes panel discussion hosted by the College on November 19. “We’re going to have to do the important work of bringing people together to ensure that these post-election shenanigans that we are seeing don’t cause lasting harm to our democracy and people’s faith in their vote.”

The 2020 Election: Who Voted, Why, and Where Does Democracy Go From Here?” brought together Benson, Hakeem Jefferson, assistant professor of political science at Stanford, and Wellesley’s Jennifer Chudy, Knafel Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and assistant professor of political science, who served as moderator. President Paula Johnson introduced the virtual event. “While the election is over, our work as citizens is not,” she said. “Based on what I have seen from our community throughout this election season, I have no doubt that Wellesley is up to the task.”

For Benson, the event was a homecoming of sorts. “My work both as a public servant and as someone who seeks to be a servant leader is really formed out of the Wellesley ethos,” she said. “I became an election lawyer because I wanted to ensure that we could protect the vote through the law and the constitution.”

The panelists touched on a variety of topics, including voter integrity, the allegations of vote-count irregularities, and whether pandemic-induced innovations in voting practices might be used in future elections. They took questions from attendees as they sought to unpack what this presidential election has demonstrated about the current state of democracy and the shifting electorate in the United States.

“My work both as a public servant and as someone who seeks to be a servant leader is really formed out of the Wellesley ethos. I became an election lawyer because I wanted to ensure that we could protect the vote through the law and the constitution.”

Jocelyn Benson ’99, Michigan secretary of state

First, the panelists discussed the election and its aftermath in Michigan. Benson said she was proud that despite the pandemic, more people voted than ever before in Michigan’s history; that the state efficiently processed a dramatic increase in absentee ballots, mail-in ballots, and early voting; and that people who voted in person on Election Day were able to do so safely.

“Our elections were quite successful, quite secure, and quite smooth,” Benson said. “It wasn’t until Wednesday evening, after the announcement of the winner of Michigan’s elections by media outlets based on the evidence, data, and unofficial tabulations that were complete at that point, that we started to see the types of disruption, unrest, and challenges that we have now been enduring over the past two weeks.”

“We knew coming into this election that misinformation and efforts to sow seeds of doubt among the electorate about the integrity of the process were going to proliferate prior to the polls closing as an effort to deter people from voting,” she said. “But it’s certainly been disappointing to see those efforts to erode the public’s confidence falsely in a very well-run election continue for so far after when the results of the election are quite clear.”

Chudy asked the panelists to comment on the new voting procedures that were implemented across the country as a result of the pandemic. Jefferson said they eliminated many barriers to voting, especially for low-propensity voters. “I think the pandemic provided quite an opportunity to innovate, in these ways activists and others have really been pushing for for some time, to make it easier for folks to vote,” he said.

“Post-COVID, we should look to these measures if we are serious about a more inclusive electoral process,” Jefferson said, adding that that’s not the goal of all elected officials in the U.S. “There are those for whom a more exclusive franchise protects power in a way that they prefer,” he said.

When Chudy asked Benson how she thought she’d handle political polarization when she first became secretary of state, Benson said she based her approach on expertise, integrity, and data. “No question that the role of the chief election officers as well as local election administrators should and must be nonpartisan,” she said. “We are the referees of democracy. We don’t take sides.”

“Post-COVID, we should look to [innovative voting] measures if we are serious about a more inclusive electoral process.”

Hakeem Jefferson, assistant professor of political science at Stanford

Toward the end of the conversation, Jefferson urged the audience to stay engaged in electoral politics by pushing Congress and the incoming Biden administration to make it easier to vote, especially following the Supreme Court’s dismantling of key parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. “For those in the audience thinking, what can I be advocating for in a post-Trump world,” he said, “I think it’s to pass a new voting rights act.”

When an attendee asked whether the innovations that made voting easier this year would be used in  future elections, Benson was hopeful. “Certainly our drop boxes and infrastructure all around the state, at the granular level, we hope and expect are here to stay,” she said. “We are going to continue that forward progress, and are grateful for what we learned this year.”

Jefferson agreed. “I think it’s going to be hard to return to a system where it is more challenging for people to vote,” he said. “I think citizens have become accustomed this cycle to being able to drop a ballot off, or mail it in, and that will be very hard to go back on.”

Chudy asked Benson how Wellesely students could stay involved in the election process and work to maintain election integrity. Benson advised serving as an election administrator, poll worker, or on a local board of elections. “We’ve seen this cycle how important it is to have people of integrity, people committed to a fair and just process of elections and election administration, to be in those positions,” she said. “Don’t hesitate to run yourself, because we need good, smart people in all of them.”

Listen to the recording of the event to hear their full discussion.