June 25, 2014 - Michigan Secretary of State is just one of the many government offices, Ruth Johnson has held.
Secretary of State Ruth Johnson was the speaker at June 17 Rotary Club of Oxford meeting. Photo by Trevor Keiser. (click for larger version)
She's been a three-term member of the Michigan House of Representatives, Oakland County's clerk/register of deeds, and a member of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners.
"Coming back to Oxford is coming back home," said Johnson as she addressed the Rotary Club of Oxford at its June 17 meeting.
"It's been over a quarter of a century since I've had the honor and privilege to represent Oxford (in government.) I love coming up here."
Johnson praised the Rotarians for being good representatives of both the community and the nation.
"I want to thank you for everything you do as a Rotary (Club)," she said. "I think it not only helps our community, but it sends a good message across the globe about what Americans are really like and what we really care about – and that's other people."
Johnson has made some positive changes to to the Secretary of State's offices and services.
One of those improvements is ExpressSOS.com. Through this website, users are able to renew their driver's license or state ID, license plates, tabs, order duplicate titles or registrations, and much more.
"You don't have to come in and stand in line unless it's the eight-year (driver's license renewal) and then we need a mug shot and an eye test," Johnson said."All the other things you used to do by coming into the Secretary of State's office you can do at ExpressSOS.com."
For those who forget about their renewals and remember the night before their birthday, Johnson said if they renew online, to make sure they print the receipts and carry them with them. They are considered "legal."
As another way of keeping customers from having to actually go to their local branch office, Secretary of State has partnered with AAA Insurance, Huntington Bank, Meijer and all 600 state libraries to give customers access to computers so they can take care of their needs.
"One in five people don't have computers in their homes," she said "So (this way) they don't have to come into our office."
When Johnson first took office, she said morale was low following a 25 percent cut in staffing. Prior to implementing the express website, lines had wait times that sometimes exceeded three and half hours.
"Not everybody was real pleasant when they got to the desk," she said. ("Since creating the express website), we've seen morale soar."
For those who still take their business to their local branch, Johnson said they've implemented something called the "MI Timeline," at the 10 busiest Secretary of State offices.
"You simply use your phone, call up and we'll tell you how long the wait is while you're buying milk, going to the bank or doing whatever you want to do," she said. "You don't have to stand in line. We remotely pull your number. It's worked so well that we're starting to look at (using it at) the other offices."
Cleaning up the voter rolls
According to Johnson, in 2008 they had 102.54 percent of the eligible electorate registered to vote.
"I'm not a mathematician, but that's not good," she said. "We went right to work on that one because we have to make sure our qualified voter file is accurate to make sure we do have accountability in elections."
One of the first things the Secretary of State looked at was deceased residents. Working with the Social Security administration, the state determined it had 50,000 dead people on its voter rolls.
"A couple of them had voted," Johnson said. "We made sure that got taken care of."
The Secretary of State then looked at residents who had moved out of state. Back when the economy was poor, Johnson said the state had 70,000 people leaving annually.
"We joined an organization called 'The Kansas Project' and they found over 130,000 people that are registered in Michigan and another state," she said. "And we found a few people who thought they should be able to vote twice."
As part of cleaning up the voter rolls, one of the biggest issues they have had is non-citizens voting, which is against the law. Johnson said they sent out 660 letters to non-citizens asking them to not vote and take themselves off the voter registry.
"I think immigration, in part, made this country so strong, but simply put – you're not a citizen and you do not have the right to vote," she added. "I can't tell you how strongly I feel about that and how hard I will continue to fight against that."
Through her efforts, they have brought the state percentage of registered voters down to 98.
"That's a great number," she said. "(Voting) is such a wonderful privilege."
Her attempts to keep voters honest resulted in a lawsuit in 2012.
"I was sued for having a checkbox. You just had to check the box (indicating) that you were a U.S. citizen. I did it in the February election. I did it in the May election. The only problem is we found some non-citizens and let them know they couldn't vote," she said. "I've never heard of a state official having to go sit in court. We got presented with a bill for over $200,000 and it's the most egregious thing that I've ever seen in government. The people said by asking (if they're citizens), I am some how being unreasonable. It's not unreasonable."
Organ donors and veterans
Of all the her accomplishments as Secretary of State, Johnson is the most proud of what she's done as it relates to organ donors and veterans.
When, Johnson took office she said Michigan was sixth from the worst in registered organ donors. In order to change those numbers, she required her staff to ask customers if they would like to sign up, as well as placing the question on all electronic media.
"I can tell you we've gone from 27 percent since 2011 to 47 percent of the people are (now) signed up. That's saving lives. (There are) 3,300 people on the waiting list waiting for that lifesaving phone call and everyone who signs up means hope," she said. "It's not statutory. It's not constitutional. It's just something I think everyone should think about and then make their own decision."
When it come to veterans, Michigan is ranked 11th in the country with 680,000 vets, but according to Johnson, Michigan is "one of the worst states in letting people know the benefits that they've earned and they deserve."
While many places do offer veteran discounts, in order to receive the discounts, veterans must present their DD214 discharge papers. Instead of having to carry around discharge papers and worry about losing them, Johnson and her team came up with a new idea.
"We decided if they bring in their DD214 discharge papers and ID, we'll put it right on their driver's license. It reads 'veteran' in big red letters," she said. "We just started that in May. We want to make sure people have an opportunity to get those benefits they really deserve."
She noted that it's free for veterans who come in for their license at their birthday, but if they want it before their birthday, it will cost $9 to make the license and process it.
"I look at everybody's license now for two things," she said. "Do you have the red heart and do you have the veteran's thing on it? If you do, I want to thank you for both."
For more information, please visit expresssos.com and Michigan.gov
Trevor graduated with degrees in English and communications from Rochester College. He wrote for his college and LA View newspapers before joining The Clarkston News in May 2007.