Is Jocelyn Benson the Democrats’ future or is the next Jennifer Granholm (as viewed by Republicans) an overrated political train wreck?

The 2010 secretary of state’s race has turned into a referendum on the Democratic nominee, a 33-year-old election attorney whom Democrats frame as a champion for voters’ rights. A Wayne State University professor, she wrote a book on being secretary of state and numerous articles on the elections process.

"I will stand up and investigate any efforts to deceive our voters," Benson said.

Republicans see her advocacy of same-day voter registration and expanded mail-in voting as luring fraud into the elections process. Like Granholm, Benson is a Harvard-trained attorney who was not born in Michigan.

By comparison, six-year Oakland County Clerk Ruth Johnson is an experienced hand in running an elections department that reduces costs, improves customer service and protects voter integrity.

This summer, Johnson, 55, uncovered evidence that an Oakland County Democratic Party official and former Benson campaign employee signed an affidavit for bogus political candidates. The Oakland County Sheriff ’s Office is investigating.

GOP activists lured Johnson into the race out of concern that the other four GOP candidates couldn’t beat Benson. They liked Johnson’s political and practical resume as one that could attract Republicans and Independents.

Johnson took the challenge, even though the $124,900-a-year salary as secretary of state is less than $140,000 she makes as county clerk.

Benson started her campaign four months after President Barack Obama was elected president and was the only Democrat in the race for nearly a year. Her intelligence, passion and likable personality scared off would-be opponents and won her a place in the hearts of Democrats who see a bright political future for the Pittsburgh native.

The candidates’ differences center on absentee voting, even though the Legislature, not the secretary of state, would be responsible for any policy change.

Benson supports allowing voters to cast an absentee ballot without providing a reason. Johnson, as a former member of the House of Representatives, voted against no-reason absentee voting twice.

Johnson said the issue of absentee ballots isn’t if voters should be required to give a reason. If voters want to vote early, giving a reason isn’t a deterrent.

The issue is voting security. She said studies have shown that mailed ballots pose the highest risk for fraud. Votes can be stolen. Voters can be coerced to vote a certain way. Ballots could get lost in the mail. Johnson wants the physically able to get to their local clerk’s office and show them a photo ID before receiving a ballot.

Seniors, military and people with disabilities could still vote through the mail.

Both Benson and Johnson support real-time campaign finance disclosures. Benson said she supports it for large contributions and would like to create an online web page of shame for candidates who don’t file their disclosures. Johnson said Michigan’s campaign finance report deadlines should match the national quarterly time frames.

In 2003, then-Rep. Johnson voted against the "bad driver fees," a budget-balancing gimmick that hit those with multiple points on their license with additional fees. She still opposes the idea.

"It is unfair," Johnson told the Capitol Confidential when asked why she bucked the Republican leadership and a majority of her fellow Republicans by voting against the fees. "It was bad law then and it is bad law now."

Benson also is opposed to the bad driver fees, saying the extra assessment for drivers who rack up too many points on their license is "discriminatory and oppressive."

On branch office consolidation plans, Benson said it’s not about opening or closing offices but "operating more smartly" by partnering with grocery stores, banks and other high-traffic retail operations to provide secretary of state services at kiosks.

Johnson suggested partnering with the private sector to share building space as a way to cut "brick and mortar" costs and be more available for patrons.

Johnson pledges to make the enhanced driver license more secure while more cost-effective. Benson said she supports the concept of the enhanced driver license, but is concerned about security violations. She said she would need to look into the issue further if elected.