Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and SOS Benson

 Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer encourage Michiganders to vote on Nov. 3

(The Center Square) – A battle is brewing between Democrats and the GOP over the future of the Secretary of State’s office.

Democrat Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson wants an appointment-only future that would require additional taxpayer funding to revamp services to include “pop-up” offices, provide virtual interactions instead of in-person visits, and the following:

  • Allow for public-private partnerships to diversify options for residents.
  • Enable the Department of State (MDOS) to partner with private entities (banks, insurance providers, auto dealers, etc.) to provide SOS services.
  • Expand services, personnel, and technology at the call center.
  • With less interaction with branch services, the MDOS call center needs resources to expand to enable more convenient options for residents with internet limitations.

She didn’t place a price tag on these items.

“Michiganders can now complete most of their transactions online, by mail or at one of our new self-service stations located at their local grocery store,” Benson said in a statement. “And the remaining in-person transactions are carried out by appointment, ensuring the vast majority of customers have little to no wait time.”

However, Benson counts wait time by the amount of time spent in the office — not the months-long wait to reach that appointment if a resident can't snag a highly-contested next-day appointment, available at 8 a.m. or noon. In Lansing, the nearest appointment time for a new license is August 3, a 76-day wait.

Benson says MDOS is increasing appointments offered by 35,000 per month to clear the delay.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are crying foul over claims Benson has slashed wait times. They allege she wants more money to provide fewer services.

Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Coloma, on Wednesday pushed back against Benson’s plan.

“Reality demands that Secretary of State Benson immediately reopen local offices to walk-in customers," LaSata said in a statement. “Michigan is reopening from the pandemic, and residents are getting back to their normal lives — it’s time that state government get back to work too.”

A GOP 2022 budget, if signed into law, would require the SOS to open branch offices that have been closed to walk-in customers for more than a year.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stance on the idea isn’t clear.

“There’s no reason why Southwest Michigan residents shouldn’t be able to walk into their local SOS office on their way to and from work or while out running errands,” LaSata said. “Benson’s policy is creating more than headaches — it’s literally disrupting people’s lives. I have heard from numerous constituents who have been forced to drive on expired licenses, can’t renew plate tabs or transfer vehicle titles because of her failing scheme. As a customer service organization, the SOS must get back to putting the people first.”

SOS Director of Media Relations Tracy Wimmer told The Center Square these Republican actions were “petty, partisan attacks.”

“Branch offices have been open for in-person service since last June and hardworking staff has continued to serve the public and will continue to do so throughout this pandemic,” Wimmer said. “Most motorists do not need to visit a branch to conduct their business, and for those that do we release thousands of next day appointments online every day at 8 a.m. and noon, and anyone who does not have access to or comfort with the internet can call 888-SOS-MICH and speak with someone to help them book an appointment.”

Staff Reporter

Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.