To the Voters Go the Spoils
HLS student works to ensure that more ballots count
By Margie Kelley
|Second-year student Jocelyn Benson and Professor Christopher Edley '78 have teamed up to amend federal election reform legislation.|
Jocelyn Benson '04 isn't waiting to finish law school to start changing the world. She's doing it in every free moment she has between her second-year classes, her duties as a resident tutor for Harvard College students and a research job with Professor Laurence Tribe '66.
"Sometimes I go to class!" jokes Benson, while taking a break in Harkness Commons in early October. That's because her all-consuming focus since last winter has been electoral reform legislation proposed after the ballot debacle in the 2000 presidential election.
Working closely with Professor Christopher Edley Jr. '78, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at HLS, Benson and a research partner have gathered statistics to amend legislation that would set a national limit on the number of "spoiled ballots" allowed in any county in any single election. A ballot is considered spoiled-and is therefore voided-if it cannot be read clearly (e.g., hanging chads) or if it is cast by improperly registered or unregistered voters. Setting a maximum limit on spoiled ballots would force counties to allow for a revote if the maximum limit of votes is disqualiÞed.
After Edley wrote the amendment and got Sen. Hillary Clinton to introduce it, Benson wrote a memo that Clinton used within the Senate to secure additional support.
The memo outlined the number of spoiled ballots discovered in the 2000 election and how the distribution of those disqualified votes revealed a possible correlation to race. In one instance, a county with a high minority population was found to have a high spoiled ballot rate, while the mostly white county next door had a low spoiled ballot rate.
"While you could argue there are various ways to explain it, the correlation is still there," says Benson. "We've argued that spoiled ballot disparities hurt predominantly minority communities. That's why we were trying to get [the amendment] inserted into the bill."
In early October, the bill passed both the House and Senate with several compromises, including a provision requiring states to set their own limits on spoiled ballots. "We were arguing for a national limit," says Benson. "There's no requirement that the states' limits be within a certain percentage of a national average or anything that would address state-to-state disparities. It's better than nothing."
Benson is already on to the next phase of her plan: releasing to the press a report on the correlation between race and spoiled ballot rates in the 2000 election. After the November 2002 elections, they will compare the rates again, taking into account any reforms or logistical changes behind any improvement in the numbers.
Benson says her work at the Civil Rights Project is central to her goal to be a better civil rights advocate.
"That's really why I came here-not necessarily to be a lawyer, but to understand the law better," she says. "So much of civil rights work is tied up in the law. Harvard has, far and away, the most resources for someone who wants to study civil rights law."
True to form, Benson didn't wait around for things to happen when she arrived as a 1L last fall: "I e-mailed Professor Edley the Þrst weekend and asked to be a research assistant. I was very sure this is what I wanted. It was an integral part of my education to be able to do civil rights work outside of class."
Benson has been rolling up her sleeves on political issues since she was a freshman at Wellesley College. Attending classes by day, she took a night job working on Sen. John Kerry's 1996 re-election campaign. She was also president of the College Democrats and began organizing the school's first conference on Women in Political Activism, now a regular event at Wellesley.
Then there was Benson's own run for elected ofÞce. Hoping to bridge a growing divide between the college and the community, she made a bid for Town Meeting Member and won.
"There was a lot of tension between the local residents and the students, as in many college towns," Benson recalls. "A lot of issues centered on the fact that Wellesley was a white town, while our college was very diverse. Students of color felt they faced problems just by going into town. I ran to bring those issues to the forefront."
Benson earned her political science degree a semester early and left for a job at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization in Alabama. There she investigated the activities of hate groups such as the Klan, neo-Nazis and the Church of the Creator for a watchdog journal.
"I flew around the country interviewing-often undercover-individuals in hate groups to Þnd out what they were doing, their motivations, their future plans," says Benson. "The first time I interviewed someone, I thought they were going to come to my hotel room and shoot me."
Benson's first story, an expose about Bo Decker, the leader of the neo-Nazi group Knights of Freedom, made the front pages of several daily newspapers when it revealed that Decker was hiding the fact that he himself was Jewish.
Benson is now working on a fall 2003 conference on race sponsored by the Civil Rights Project. And she's still deeply committed to election reform.
"It's great to feel like I have a small role in the debate," she says. "That's what I love about the Civil Rights Project. Its approach to issues is: 'What can we do to help the most people?' It's such a great place to learn about advocacy."