Ruth Johnson deserves 2nd term

Ruth Johnson deserves 2nd term

From the Detroit Free Press

Voters should use two criteria to decide whether an incumbent deserves another term: Did the officeholder do well? Could the challenger do better?

The first term of Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, has been a pleasant surprise. We dinged Johnson in 2010 by endorsing her opponent, citing Johnson’s solicitation of tea party support by “flogging tangential issues like immigration, health care legislation and gender-altering surgery.”

But 2014’s Johnson is a different campaigner, focused on her record of accomplishments, largely disregarding flashpoint social issues or her opponent’s weaknesses.

And her accomplishments are substantial: Wait times at SOS offices are down, use of technology is up, and Johnson has maintained a focus on transparency often uncharacteristic of her party.

By both measures, RUTH JOHNSON wins the Free Press’ endorsement for a second term as secretary of state.

Johnson has improved Michiganders’ SOS experience, launching ExpressSOS.com, a website offering the full range of registration and renewal options. Some 5.7 million transactions have been conducted via the website. She has also piloted MI-TIME Line at the 10 busiest SOS branches — an electronic sign-in method that allows users to make an appointment by computer, phone, text or on-site, and receive texted updates as time of service approaches. It’s a smart way to make what was once an arduous process convenient for customers. Johnson plans to expand the service to other branches. She also has placed SOS access points in public libraries and AAA Michigan offices, another smart decision.

She also favors no-reason absentee voting and online voter registration, two measures that could increase election turnout.

Johnson is charged with overseeing campaign-finance disclosure at the state level, and in 2013, she bucked her own party by saying she would seek a rule change to require expanded disclosure of donors for certain types of political advertising. The Republican-controlled Legislature responded by passing a law, signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, protecting such dark-money donors.

She is piloting a program to allow local municipalities to use the state’s online campaign-finance disclosure system. If cities and counties buy in, it could create a uniform and easily accessible system that increases transparency in political campaigns.

Johnson has backed away from some of her most hard-line stances: Her offices drew criticism for refusing to allow one partner in a married same-sex couple to change his last name via the same means as heterosexual married people; that process includes a nominal fee, but changing your name sans a state-sanctioned marriage certificate is a long, costly process. Johnson told the Free Press Editorial Board that she’ll abide by the law of the land, should the ruling against Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban be upheld.

In 2013, Johnson reversed a policy of refusing to issue driver’s licenses and state ID cards to immigrants granted the right to stay in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program. This wasn’t altruism or idealism on Johnson’s part; federal guidelines made it impossible for Johnson to continue to deny that access to DACA grantees.

Also ill-advised was an addition of a check box to the ballot application requiring the prospective voter to certify U.S. citizenship. A federal judge ordered Johnson to remove the check box from the ballot.

But on balance, Johnson’s term in office has held more good than bad.

And while Democratic opponent Godfrey Dillard’s record of achievement is commendable — as a litigator, law professor and diplomat — he seems ill-prepared for the office. He is keenly aware of the need to expand and preserve access to the ballot. But in an interview with the Free Press Editorial Board, Dillard said he would combat long lines at SOS offices by creating regional centers, indicating that he would reduce the number of offices in the state. We’re hard-pressed to understand how fewer offices would lead to quicker service.

Dillard also proposed dedicated lines for different services, which sounds like a good plan in theory, but in practice could lead to longer lines for common functions, with clerks idle at stations marked for less frequently needed services. He also seemed unaware of the online services and line-management technology already implemented by Johnson; Dillard dismissed such innovations, saying they benefit “the educated public” only.

Nor did Dillard express a particular passion for campaign-finance disclosure, a key — and embattled — function of the SOS office.

Johnson, if her bid for a second term is successful, should play to her strengths — a competent administration, a focus on transparency and oversight, improved voter turnout — and leave political talking points on the back burner.