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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Renewing plates, licenses in Michigan can take months, despite promises

Customers wait in line outside the Secretary of State’s Lansing Branch
Customers wait in line outside the Secretary of State’s Lansing Branch on Thursday. Most of the customers had scheduled an appointment in advance. (Bridge Michigan photo by Sergio Martínez-Beltrán)

July 7: At Michigan SOS, walk-up service does not mean you can walk in
July 1: GOP, Democrats agree: Return walk-ins at Michigan Secretary of State’s branches
June 10: Michigan GOP to Secretary of State: Extend licenses, end appointment system
June 8: As complaints mount, Michigan Secretary of State adds 350K branch appointments

LANSING— For many, having to go to a branch of the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office is a headache.

And during the pandemic, it’s only gotten worse.

“Yeah, it’s ... hard to get an appointment, especially online,” Teklit Okubai, 24, told Bridge Michigan as he waited outside one of Lansing’s Secretary of State’s branches.

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Okubai has tried for weeks to set up his commercial driver license test. The system online kept telling him there were no appointments for at least a month. So, he had been calling the Secretary of State’s Office to see if he could snatch one of the appointments they release daily.

He was lucky. On Wednesday, he got one for Thursday. Still, he’s frustrated.

“It should be easy to set up an appointment,” Okubai said. “But it is not.”

Many can relate.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson campaigned in 2018 as an expert at streamlining bureaucracies, promising she’d ensure customers would wait no more than 30 minutes at branches if she was elected.

Instead, waits increased — often exponentially — during Benson’s first year in office, with some branches experiencing waits of more than two hours in 2019. 

Benson switched to an appointment-only based system in June 2020. It was complicated by the pandemic and its stay-at-home orders, updates to the Secretary of State system that caused crashes and branch closures due to exposure.

Delays to get appointments can vary wildly

On Thursday, the next available in-person appointment in West Bloomfield was Aug. 10, July 9 in Jackson and July 21 in Flint. Some branches had shorter delays: Appointments were available this week in Kalamazoo, and Cheboygan drivers only had to wait until June 4.

All branches release some daily appointments at 8 a.m. and at noon for the next day, but customers aren't guaranteed a slot.

Benson told reporters Thursday the agency is experiencing a “looming backlog of transactions that has created short-term inefficiencies in how appointments are available.”

The backlog, she said, is partly due to legislation passed last year that extended the deadline to renew driver licenses, state ID and vehicle registrations until December 2020.

Brazil Banvunyaki, 19, told Bridge Michigan he had to wait four months to get an in-person appointment to register his car with the state.

He said he was frustrated and felt like he was putting himself at risk. At one point, he got pulled over by the police.

“(The police) asked me, ‘Are you driving a car with no plate, nothing, no registration?’” Banvunyaki recalled. “So, I just showed them my certificate of my appointment. They said, ‘OK.’”

In April 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order freezing civil citations on expired tags and registration. 

But that expired last month, and police departments have, once again, started to crack down on expired plates, which are a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and fines $100, plus court costs that can double that amount or more. 

The Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety posted a video on Twitter last week clarifying the agency has been issuing citations to those with expired documentation, unless there’s proof the person has an appointment. 

Meanwhile, the Grand Rapids Police Department told Bridge Michigan in an email that “expiration of licenses and registrations are to be enforced.”

When Bridge Michigan asked on Thursday whether the current waits are fair or if Michigan should freeze citations, Benson encouraged motorists to use online services and make next-day appointments.

“We upgraded our technology … to move the license service online and to self service stations, meaning that, really, now nearly everyone— with limited exception —can renew their licenses without having to go to a branch office. That holds true for plates as well and plate renewals,” Benson said. 

Some 60 percent of Secretary of State transactions are now completed online, double the percent in 2019, said Benson.

Benson announced her office is increasing branch appointments by 10 percent in the upcoming months — she estimated that 35,000 more people will now have access to in-person services each month.

The agency will continue with the appointment system after the pandemic, which Benson said customers like. Branch ratings on Google have doubled, from two to four stars on a five-star scale, while complaints have dwindled.

Her office is also going to dedicate staff to answer phones and help people without the internet make online appointments for them.

“Here's the bottom line: My team has worked tirelessly these last few years to modernize this department after decades of neglect,” Benson said. 

“We have a vision, and plan to make this department a modern and efficient service driven agency for every resident in this state. But we cannot do it alone.”

In recent years, the number of branch workers has declined because of budget cuts, in part because general fund appropriations to the Secretary of State were cut eight times over the past two decades.

Benson is calling on the Legislature to provide funding and pass legislation that could streamline the services the agency offers.

Among her proposals: multi-year vehicle registrations, and allowing Secretary of State workers to handle customer appointments in online settings.

Benson also wants the Legislature to provide funding for “pop-up” branches in places such as cafes, grocery stores and banks, but did not provide funding specifics.

Republicans may be interested — particularly since they have advocated for many of Benson’s ideas, said Abby Walls, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. 

She pointed to a recent opinion piece by Shirkey in The Detroit News in which he said the state should “explore if there are other community institutions, like banks or libraries, that could be bonded to be able to provide a state ID.”

“So now, in addition to having the governor following Senate Republicans’ lead with transparency in COVID management, the Secretary of State is following our lead as well,” Walls said.

The statement referred to Whitmer’s announcement Thursday that she will use vaccination benchmarks to determine when to lift business restrictions, an approach Republicans have sought for several months.

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