Jocelyn Benson plans overhaul of Michigan Secretary of State offices

Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson promised that no one would have to wait more than 30 minutes at branch offices. She announced Tuesday that she plans to revamp the branch offices’ technology, environment and services over the coming months. (Photo courtesy of the Jocelyn Benson campaign)

August 2019: Michigan’s Secretary of State promised 30-minute waits — lines are worse
August 2019: Check out wait times at your Michigan Secretary of State offices

Next time you go to renew your driver’s license, there may be a smiling face there to greet you. You might then step up to a sleek self-service station to quickly process your paperwork. And if you have problems, you could bank on there being a local staff member; perhaps even one who speaks your native language if it’s not English.  

Those are among the changes Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson vows to implement after visits to the state’s 131 branch offices. Over two months, Benson said she’d visited the offices in each county unannounced to observe daily operations. What she found, she said at a press conference Thursday, was “heartbreaking.”

One third of the existing self-service kiosks weren’t working, employees were working overtime regularly and some visitors were waiting hours for help.

Related: What to expect in Michigan’s first election since voting rights amendment
Related: Jocelyn Benson says she’s committed to increasing Michigan voter turnout

“In many situations I was frankly devastated to see the challenges that some of the branches were facing,” she said.

Benson said she was inspired, however, by the dedication of branch employees, who she said “are ready for change.”

Over the coming months and years, Benson said she plans to implement a wide variety of fixes she hopes will modernize the office’s interactions with residents, smooth branch operations and achieve her central campaign promise of a 30-minutes-or-less guaranteed wait time when residents visit their local branch.  

That will include targeted support for high-volume customers such as car dealerships, improvements to self-service kiosks for renewing license plate tabs or watercraft and motorcycle registration, and possible changes to branch locations and amenities in some urban areas with limited available parking. She also hopes to explore options for multi-year license plates and automatic driver’s license renewal, she wrote in an accompanying report detailing her plans.

Benson also hopes offices will “celebrate local communities” by being more responsive to local needs. When she visited the Dearborn office, she said she saw Arabic-speaking customers were having trouble getting the service they needed because none of the office employees spoke Arabic. After her visit, Benson said, the branch quickly hired two Arabic-speaking employees.

Since beginning the tour, Benson said her office has already changed the MI-TIME appointment system, which allowed customers to get in line remotely and receive updated time estimates for how long their wait would be. The system was reporting dramatically inaccurate wait times and causing “deep frustration” for customers and employees, she said. Now the system simply shows people their place in line, allowing them to decide when to return to the office.

Benson did not directly address a question about how much the planned changes might cost, saying only that she is a “fiscally conservative leader” and hopes certain changes — such as using the self-service stations to cut down on the state’s $7 million postage costs to, for instance, send registration forms to customers — will save the state money.

The department’s problems are the result of “too many short-term solutions” over years, Benson said. Benson’s predecessor, Ruth Johnson, first implemented many of the services Benson says she wants to improve, such as the MI-TIME system and the self-service kiosks.

“There’s no short-term solution here. There’s no silver bullet, there’s no quick fix,” Benson said. “More than anything, we’re asking for patience… stay tuned, we’ve got a lot of ahead of us that we plan to do.”

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Thu, 04/11/2019 - 2:20pm

Whatever your opinion is of Sec. Benson or her proposed policies, 131 branch office visits in a span of 2-months is impressive!

John Q. Public
Thu, 04/11/2019 - 4:00pm

Just don't consult with Rick Snyder on technology. He has a track record in both the private and public sectors.

J. Katakowski
Fri, 04/12/2019 - 8:46am

Boy you are spot on with that comment.

Thu, 04/11/2019 - 4:41pm

I go to the Secretary of State branch at the Frandor Shopping Center in Lansing. It has actually improved a lot from what it used to be like, I think it went reasonably fast. A 30 minute wait time is not realistic, it is not a process that people should expect to go really fast since every time I have went there it has been very crowded.

Thu, 04/11/2019 - 6:56pm

The wait time at the Redford SOS on Joy Road and Beech Daly Road is hours at a time - always!

Dennis Mcclelland
Fri, 04/12/2019 - 8:43am

Go girl. Wait times are unreal every time I go to port Huron office.

Susie q
Fri, 04/12/2019 - 9:00am

Hour and a half at Fenton road, flint. 45 people ahead of us. As long as the wait was, they did move a lot of people through in that time.

Jeffrey Kless
Fri, 04/12/2019 - 10:59am

I live half way between Petoskey and Cheboygan and the wait time is about the same in both but smiling faces, courtesy and helpfulness only exists in one office!

Fri, 04/12/2019 - 9:45am

Anyone who has been following Jocelyn Benson knows of her commitment to making government work better for the people. I had not heard of her visits to SOS offices, but this is typical of her understated leadership style and commitment to the public servants who do the daily work of her office.

Roger Houthoofd
Fri, 04/12/2019 - 10:14am

The online system isn’t much better. I was given a PIN number for watercraft renewal and when I tried to renew, it said it was the wrong number. I called SOS and they said they had a system conversion, but everything didn’t transfer. So I had to mail it in and wait two weeks for the tab.

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 5:01pm

You're lucky you only had to wait 2 weeks.

Fri, 04/12/2019 - 11:11am

Why can't Betsy DeVos put the same effort in visiting public schools in Michigan? Well done, Benson.

Sat, 04/13/2019 - 7:33am

Betsy DeVos is probably terrified to set foot in a Michigan school, esp a public one. For good reason...she may be chased out by an angry mob. She's a coward.

Robert Honeyman
Sun, 05/05/2019 - 7:20pm

Bears might attack.

Mrs A
Sat, 04/13/2019 - 1:41am

Renewing driver's license not possible online (the system was not ready to accept my card) so went in to the South Kalamazoo County branch and it took a total of 10 hours over two days to complete the transaction. Another patron said there was some deadline for a specific class of vehicle which just happened to coincide with my birthday.

Carol churchill
Sat, 04/13/2019 - 7:58am

After having left the branch office twice previously due to 3-4 hour predicted wait time, my husband was there when the office opened. He was 7th in line and had a 2-1/2 hour wait! Totally unacceptable! Online appointments aren’t available in our county and his task couldn’t be done online.

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 8:35am

Not happy this morning when I went to get in line online this morning!!!

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 11:15am

I feel sorry about the time delays experienced by the commentators to this story. In recent years, I have made several trips for several different transactions to the Secretary of State office at Pontiac Trail and Beck in Novi, and rarely had to wait more than a half hour. So, my experience is that wait times were much improved under Candace Miller. I'm not sure about the relevance of Betsy DeVos to a discussion of the new MI Secretary of State.

Jeff C
Sun, 04/28/2019 - 3:14pm

Bring SOS into the 21st century. Why are they still stapling a paper copy to a renewed driver's license? Clip the corner and enter it into the computer. I can't think of another state that uses such an archaic system. And while they're catching up with everyone else, do away with the 3% charge for plastic payment methods, many people use credit or debit cards exclusively, it's not like we can take our business elsewhere to avoid the extra charge.

Howard Cross
Mon, 04/29/2019 - 11:22pm

The Michigan government was neglected by the ex governor Snyder. He was the worst and most incompetent do nothing governor in Michigan’s History. He is properly known as “the great poisoner of children”. His most infamous non achievement!

Sandra Fisher
Sun, 05/05/2019 - 10:05pm

The wait time in Portage, MI SOS is horrible. There are 14 computers and 3 workers. One of the workers (female older) talks for ever to the customers so she doesn't have to do much work. 71 people ahead of me and wait time was 4 hrs. There have been no improvements under Benson. The office has actually gotten worse.

Wed, 07/03/2019 - 9:43am

Cannot get in line-online-only able to make an appointment. Kiosks are always down. Doesn’t seem like much of an improvement to me.

Kelly Ripken
Tue, 08/13/2019 - 9:31am

I'll be very interested to see the impact of an SOS, Benson, who believes in government as a force for good in society, rather than one from a party that wants to dismantle government (drown it in the bathtub, etc.) and privatize it. Competent, efficient, caring need to be the watchwords. The wrinkle, of course, is the purse strings are held by the party that denigrates government at every turn, that bashes public servants, even teachers--and so isn't likely to want to fund changes. Benson needs to speak up if her budget isn't enough to cut long lines and inefficiencies.

Ellen R
Wed, 10/02/2019 - 10:52am

For model years 1984 and newer, the vehicle registration is based on the manufacturer's suggested retail (or base) price (ad valorem). Registrations for models 1983 or older are based on the vehicle's weight.
I am disabled and in order for me to have a decent working vehicle whereby I can make it to the doctor and home again I chose a 1997 Ford Expedition. It is a southern vehicle and is in good working order. However the cost of tag renewal is outrageous. I purchased the vehicle for $3500.00. Why don't you base the cost of tag renewal on what I paid for the vehicle and not what the manufacturer's suggested retail was. I just purchased it in 2016. I should not have to be penalized for every year since it was newly purchased at base price.
On my fixed income, and as a widowed home owner with so many other bills to pay I struggle enough.

John B
Thu, 10/03/2019 - 9:50am

Nobody should be making excuses for the ridiculous wait times at these offices. Their process for getting people in and out are broken and pathetic.

12 computers at the counter and 5 employees to run them....looks just like the check outs at a Meijer.

What a joke.

Common Sense
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 1:53pm

Do you people realize this woman is digging into your pocket at every turn with increased registration fees, new pro-rated plate transfer fees, title lien fees, endless new regulations, etc?? Did you notice that your registration renewal that used to cost $120 is now closer to $200? This is the worst Secretary of State I think this state has ever seen. I agree that the MI Time Online is an improvement to a very broken system but everything else is a total money grab while the branches are still totally understaffed.

Dan Kennedy
Tue, 11/12/2019 - 12:08pm

One hour and 45 minutes waiting so far and at least one hour yet to wait for newReal license at at East Oakland County SOS...seems to be like a third world country

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 10:19am

What happened to your promise of 30-minute wait lines. The system is broken. Don't say you're going to fix something and then don't do it

M. Ashley
Wed, 04/22/2020 - 5:41pm

I think ms. Benson got a raw deal. She campaigns on a very " doable" scenario, 30 minutes in and out. What isn't "doable", is what actually happened. New officials inaugurated in January, Feb 11 starts the hugest software upgrade in the SOS system I have ever lived through while working 40 years in the car business. That process had to have been approved by the prior admin, with a start date after they are gone . Not saying they were bad changes, but there is no way that changeover could be engineered in 3weeks.