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Michigan state official says W.Va. comments go against 2022 misinformation fight

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Free and fair elections are a hallmark of a healthy, functioning democracy, and public trust in how elections are conducted is an element of that. That's why the National Association of Secretaries of State recently launched an initiative called Trusted Info 2022. The bipartisan group is hoping to encourage voters to seek information about elections from its members, who are usually the top election administrators in their states. It's an effort to combat the disinformation and conspiracy theories that have made election administration in the U.S. a point of conflict.

Last week, we asked West Virginia's Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican and executive board member of the organization, to tell us about the initiative, which he did. But then the conversation took an unexpected turn when I asked him whether he was willing to acknowledge that the 2020 election was fairly decided.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MAC WARNER: When you start to put the labels on there - fairly and duly and that sort of thing...

MARTIN: Well, what would you say?

WARNER: ...You have to have a hesitation. The outcome is there. The points are on the board, like a football game. If a referee makes a bad call, but the points go on the board, you can keep recounting those points all you want, and the scoreboard is going to still read the same. But we do need to go back and look at the calls that those referees made. I think we need to look for those inconsistencies and improprieties that were made in a number of different states and learn from that, and then get the best practices put in across those states. But the best way to do that is not a 735-page, monstrous bill that they just tried to ram down everybody's throats.

MARTIN: Well, that did not sit well with some other members of the association, who sent a letter to the president and president-elect of the bipartisan group, saying Warner's remarks implied, without evidence, that there were improprieties in the way other states oversaw elections, and that's directly contrary to the purpose of the initiative he was promoting. And they asked that Warner be required to either retract those remarks or resign from his leadership position in the group. The letter was signed by the secretaries of state of Arizona, Maine and Michigan, so we asked Jocelyn Benson, secretary of state for Michigan, to tell us more. Madam Secretary, thank you so much for coming on.

JOCELYN BENSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So your reaction to your colleague's remarks - the letter said that you were disappointed. What else? Are you surprised?

BENSON: I mean, I was frustrated because, I think, in this era - this unprecedented era of disinformation - there's a critical need for state election officials to be relied upon as trusted sources of factual information about elections and speak the facts and not get caught up in partisan hyperbole.

MARTIN: That was - one of my questions is, do you think that he's undermining confidence in elections overall or just some people's elections? And, particularly, do you think he's directing his remarks to your state?

BENSON: Well, in 2020, Michigan, Arizona and a number of other states faced unprecedented scrutiny and a lot of misinformation about our elections. Yet, despite that scrutiny, we demonstrated time and time again with facts and evidence - in our state, over 250 audits - that affirmed that the results of the presidential election were accurate and a reflection of the will of the people. So to state without offering any specifics or evidence that there were improprieties in any state or in any way in which secretaries of state oversaw or administered their elections in 2020 is a real kind of insidious kind of misinformation that, frankly, I've come to expect from partisan politicians and others seeking to gain some kind of political advantage. But I - you know, it disheartens me to hear it from colleagues who are meant to be represented as trusted sources of information.

MARTIN: You know, I'm just - a couple of points is that West Virginia is one of the states where the election administration has been highly regarded, and I do note that Mr. Warner is one of the Republican officials who was willing to acknowledge that there were attempts at Russian interference in the 2016 election, which a number of other Republican officials were not. But I noticed that all three of the signatories of the letter were Democrats. Is there a reason for that? I mean, and I ask in part - like, in Georgia, for example, where Republicans run the administration of elections, they were subjected to death threats because of - vicious threats...

BENSON: Mmm hmm.

MARTIN: ...A vicious campaign of harassment because they did not go along with the former president and his allies' criticism of the way their elections were conducted. I was just wondering why is it - since we do know that Republican officials in other states have been similarly harassed, is there some reason why all the signatories to this letter were Democrats?

BENSON: Well, this is - you know, these are myself and two colleagues who reacted the same way spontaneously to this particular interview and felt it was important to say something.

MARTIN: You noted - you know, Michigan has been a scene of just some very intense partisan and ideological conflict. I guess it's just been a very intense time in your state, and I just wonder is that going on now? Are you still experiencing what I think a lot of people would consider to be harassment in the course of...

BENSON: Yes. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Conducting the duties of your office?

BENSON: Yes. And that's such an important point to bring up and a connection to make to the false rhetoric that it oftentimes then leads to - hateful rhetoric - and then - and misinformed accusations that then transform into threats that then can transform into actual violence. And it's certainly something that I and Secretary Hobbs, who also signed the letter in Arizona - that's what we have lived for the past almost two years now - individuals showing up outside our homes, individuals acting in furtherance of this misinformation, threatening us, threatening our families.

And so there is a very insidious aspect to the spread of this misinformation and these falsehoods that the 2020 election was anything but a safe, secure and accurate reflection of the will of the people across the board, across the country, in every state. So it's another reason why we felt it was important to speak up now because I also fear that if we don't - if we don't be very clearly about what we need to expect from our colleagues, then things are potentially going to get worse as we get closer to this November.

MARTIN: Jocelyn Benson is the secretary of state of Michigan. Madam Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BENSON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: We reached out to West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, asking if he would like to comment on the letter written by Secretary Benson and her colleagues in Arizona and Maine. His office responded with a statement that said Secretary Warner did not learn of the letter until today, and that he, quote, "would enjoy the opportunity to talk with his colleagues and defend his comments," end quote.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.