April 25, 2012 - Tuesday was a homecoming of sorts for Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson as she addressed the Rotary Club of Oxford.
Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson addresses the Rotary Club of Oxford.
Photo by CJC. (click for larger version)
"I have 1,700 communities (that) I represent now, but I'm always glad when (Rotarian) Joe (Bullen) asks me to come to Oxford," she said.
Johnson began her political career in Oxford 24 years ago as the Oakland County commissioner representing District 1.
"This actually, at the time, was the hub of District 1, so I spent a lot of time in Oxford," she said. "It's always good to be back here."
Over the years, Johnson, who's a Republican, continued to serve the citizens of Oxford as a state representative, then as Oakland County Clerk and now, as Secretary of State, a post she was elected to in 2010.
Despite the many political and professional successes she's enjoyed, Johnson is still just a regular person at heart, who doesn't feel the need to put on airs.
When Rotarian Pastor Bob Holt addressed her as "Madam Secretary," Johnson replied, "Call me Ruth, if you would."
During her address to the Rotarians, Johnson highlighted some of the changes she's made to the Secretary of State's office and discussed a variety of issues and challenges associated with the voting process.
Johnson told the Rotarians how under her administration, the Secretary of State's general fund budget was reduced by 20 percent.
This included cutting state employees.
"We're down to (staffing) levels that are 20 percent less than what they were 10 years ago," Johnson said. "So, be nice to your Secretary of State workers. They're really doing a wonderful job (with) far less revenue than they used to have and far less help."
Johnson noted the number of Secretary of State branch offices has decreased from 182 to 131. "We have to cut, just like everybody else," she said. "It's not easy."
Many services offered by the Secretary of State office can now be accessed on-line by visiting ExpressSOS.com.
"That started in October and we've almost had 1 million transactions on-line," Johnson said. "We've more than tripled our on-line services."
"We wanted to make sure you can go on-line to do things because (citizens) had up to three-and-a-half-hour waits at our Secretary of State (branch) offices," she explained.
For example, folks can now renew their boat licenses, vehicle registrations and license plate tabs on-line. "While we enjoyed seeing you on your birthday, please don't come (in) anymore. Stay home with your family and friends," said Johnson, noting there are nine million vehicle tabs in Michigan.
Even driver's licenses can be renewed via the internet. "We don't need a new mugshot," Johnson said. "You don't need an eye test, so just do that on-line."
It should be noted that Michigan law does require motorists to renew their driver's license in person at a Secretary of State office once every eight years.
"We'll see you every eight years – that's good enough," Johnson quipped.
Johnson reported the on-line services have really "cut those lines down" at the Secretary of State offices, which is good news for people who need to visit one.
"That really helps people like my mom, who will be 85 (and) really doesn't want to go on-line," she said. "The lines are so much shorter for those (people) that have to come in."
One man, two votes?
"One of my greatest passions is voting integrity," Johnson told the Rotarians. "What's more important to America (than the concept of) one citizen, one vote?"
Unfortunately, some folks are able to cast multiple ballots in the same election because when they move to a new state, federal law dictates they cannot be removed from the list of registered voters in their old state, according to Johnson.
"We've had people vote in two different states (in) the same (national) election," she said. "We're cracking down on that. We joined something called the Kansas Project and with that, we found 164,000 people that were registered in multiple states, Michigan being one. So, we're in the process of cleaning that off."
This is important because Johnson believes every vote counts and every citizen should get one vote – no more, no less.
Johnson illustrated how important each vote is with a story about a young man she knew in the state House of Representatives who lost an election by one vote. He had a recount and it determined he actually won by two votes.
"One wrong vote's not right," she said.
Not a citizen, but still voting
Enacted in 1995, the federal law commonly known as the Motor Voter law requires that everyone who comes into a Secretary of State office to apply for or renew their driver's license must be asked if they would like to register to vote.
Aside from being a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Tenth Amendment, in Johnson's opinion, she told the Rotarians this law has created a huge problem.
"A lot of them (who registered) weren't citizens," she said. "So, we have what we think are thousands of (non-citizens) on the (voter) rolls."
Anyone who is not a U.S. citizen, but still votes in a U.S. election is guilty of a felony. "If you commit a felony, you can never become a U.S. citizen," Johnson said.
She told the Rotarians about a case in Kalamazoo in which a man who came to this country from China via Indonesia is now facing felony charges simply because he voted. This man – who was working very hard to become a U.S. citizen, owns a restaurant and home and has a family – is now facing the prospect of being convicted of a crime and never being able to earn his citizenship.
The kicker is, in Indonesia, everyone is required by law to vote, so this man thought he was doing the right thing.
Allowing non-citizens to vote is "hurting these people" and "hurting the integrity of our elections," Johnson said.
Johnson contacted the Social Security Administration seeking help in determining who is and who isn't a citizen.
"They said, in this very long, legalese, multiple-page letter, 'We're not compelled to, so we're not going to,'" she said.
When she was in Washington D.C., Johnson visited the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and asked for its help.
"That was in January," she said. "I haven't heard from them. So, they just have refused to help us get that cleaned up."
Johnson is now working with Congresswoman Candice Miller (R-Harrison Township) to create a law that "says that they have to tell us" who is and who isn't a U.S. citizen.
"Transparency is so important," she said. "This is America."
Organ donors needed
Michigan used to be "the sixth worst" state in terms of people signing up to be on the organ donor registry.
"There's 3,000 people on the (transplant) waiting list – people are dying (while) waiting and waiting," Johnson said. "They're kids. They're moms. They're dads. They're grandpas and grandmas . . . I, unfortunately, got to talk to families that have lost their mom, lost their daughter, lost (other) family members."
Johnson made promoting this issue one of her passions and as a result, there's been an 89 percent increase (from February 2011 to February 2012) in Michigan residents becoming registered organ donors.
She urged Rotary Club audience members to, if they have not already signed up, "please think about it."
"Don't put it off because at some point we're all going home and you can really help somebody that's really in need," she said. "It's not just quantity of life, it's also quality of life."
Age is not a factor.
"Our oldest donors were 101 and 103," Johnson said.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.