HOUGHTON - Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson visited the Copper Country Tuesday to meet with staffers and constituents and publicize several new initiatives.
Starting May 1, she said, veterans will be able to have that designation put on their driver's license. There will be informational flyers available at the offices about benefits for the state's 680,000 veterans - the 11th most in the country.
"They can get the benefits and the discounts they've earned and deserve without carrying around their discharge papers, which is a pain in the neck," she said. "My sister's are worn and tattered at the edges."
Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette
Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, right, talks with Houghton branch employees during a visit to the office Tuesday. Johnson is visiting several branches and holding town halls during her visit to the Upper Peninsula.
Johnson will also honor Marquette General Hospital with a Shining Star award for its care of Sanaz Nezami, a student admitted to Michigan Technological University who had been severely beaten. She later died from her injuries; her husband, Nima Nassiri, has been charged with homicide. Before Nezami died, the hospital set up a Skype connection with Nezami's family, who was 6,000 miles away. Nezami also improved several lives through organ and tissue donation.
Another goal of Johnson's was thanking the Secretary of State offices for their work in making Michigan one of the top states for people willing to donate organs. Three years ago, 27 percent of Michigan adults were registered as organ donors. Through methods such as asking people if they want to become an organ donor when they renew their license, that number has climbed to 45 percent.
"L'Anse has the highest participation in the state, so the U.P.'s leading the way," Johnson said. "Mohawk had the biggest increase, so I wanted to give them both awards for that."
At expressSOS.com, residents can do a number of tasks from their home or smartphone, such as renewing their driver's license, replacing their state ID or changing their address. About 4.5 million people have used it, Johnson said.
The website includes a "print and go" feature, where people can renew their tabs or license online and carry the receipt with them until it's mailed in. People still have to come in every eight years for a new photograph.
"The lines aren't so bad here, but it can sometimes be a long drive, especially if the weather's bad," she said.
Secretary of State offices have also helped save the state's parks, Johnson said. Despite the cost of tags dropping from $24 to $11, she said, they sold so many they made more money by October than they had previously in the entire year.
"Our parks are clean now," she said. "They're great family places to go. ... there's nothing more spectacular than the Great Lakes, and Lake Superior is just beautiful. We like to take our family vacations in the U.P."
Michigan also recently won recognition as one of the best-performing states in the country for elections. The Pew Center on the States study found Michigan had the sixth-best performance in the country in 2012, and credited reforms such as Johnson's introduction of post-election audits. The state also has the third-highest number of eligible adults registered to vote, at 98 percent.
"The staff does a fabulous job," she said. "They ask people when they come in if they'd like to register if they're a U.S. citizen and 18 or older. That's made a big difference."
The one downside was an average wait of 21.9 minutes at the polls, the sixth-worst mark in the country.
Johnson said the delays were likely because of four counties with two-page ballots on both sides, which moved the average wait time in the state up by four minutes.
Further reforms such as online voter registration and no-reason absentee ballots would likely improve the state's performance even more, Johnson said.
Either through their computer or their smartphone, people can go to the Michigan Voter Information Center at michigan.gov/vote and look up their ballot beforehand to speed up their process.
"We want to make sure we have integrity in our elections, but we also want them to be very convenient," Johnson said.