SPRINGFIELD — The Department of Motor Vehicles has long represented a source of dread in Illinois and beyond. Many equate the DMV with long wait times, stale air and piles of paperwork.
Newly inaugurated Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias hopes to change that. As the state’s youngest constitutional officer, Giannoulias hopes to bring his youthful perspective to the task of modernizing the DMV and office as a whole.
Rejuvenating the office is at the top of the to-do list for Giannoulias, 46, who campaigned on the promise of modernization and the elimination of what he described as the “time tax.”
“We are excited about bringing some of this new technology. We are looking at implementing our skip-line appointment program, which will reduce wait times,” Giannoulias told Lee Enterprises in an interview last week. “We’re going to launch an electronic car title system to streamline the car registration process.”
With more than 4,000 employees, the secretary of state’s office is the second-largest constitutional office after the governor’s office. Most know it as the unit of government that issues driver’s licenses and registers motor vehicles. But the secretary of state is also the keeper of official state records, maintains the 20-building Capitol Complex and oversees the state library.
This is not Giannoulias’ first time holding a constitutional office. At 30, he was the nation’s youngest state treasurer when he was elected to that post in 2007. He lost a race for former President Barack Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat to Republican Mark Kirk in 2010.
He returns to public office to succeed the longest-serving secretary of state in Illinois history, Jesse White, who occupied the role for 24 years. White’s press secretary, David Duker, told Lee Enterprises that “Mr. White is very proud of the reforms and programs he administered and believes Alexi Giannoulias will do an excellent job in that position.”
Giannoulias said his previous experience as treasurer smoothed his transition into office.
“I do think that having served in statewide office before and having managed people, it provides some meaningful and crucially valuable experience, especially day one,” said Giannoulias. “We kind of hit the ground running because I’ve had a transition before, we’ve hired senior staff before and having that under my belt has been enormously helpful.”
Focus on customer service
Modernization was a key talking point in the general election race for the office, which saw Giannoulias defeat Republican state Rep. Dan Brady of Bloomington by about 11 percentage points. Despite their policy differences, the two found some common ground on the need for enhanced efficiency.
“We agree that the technology side of things and the upgrades are very important to bringing the office into the 21st century and to help to reduce lines and wait times,” Brady told Lee Enterprises last week.
Giannoulias invited his former opponent to serve on his transition team as he prepared to take over the office. Brady was appointed to chair a transition committee to make recommendations related to organ and tissue donations, an issue Brady is familiar with from his days as McLean County coroner. He will also serve on a committee dealing with driver’s facilities and road safety.
“What touches people’s lives on a daily basis in Illinois’ Secretary of State facility is the drivers services facility,” said Brady.
During the campaign, Giannoulias espoused the creation of a digital driver’s license or state identification card that could be accessed on residents’ phones. He also spoke about the potential to create an app that would allow residents to upload documents in advance and obtain step-by-step guidance for completing certain tasks.
“I am committed to making the Illinois driver services and office facilities the most customer-centric and accessible in the country,” Giannoulias said.
Another item on Giannoulias’ to-do list is enhancing the state’s automatic voter registration system, which is designed to add citizens to the voter rolls when they obtain a driver’s license or state identification card. The current system offers people the opportunity to “opt out” and not register while visiting a driver’s license facility.
Giannoulas would seek to change the system so that eligible voters who present proof of citizenship are automatically added to the voting rolls and would have to request to be removed.
“This small change where someone gets their driver’s license or ID and (they) are automatically registered,” Giannoulias said, “and they would have to proactively almost unregister — otherwise, they are voters.”
Giannoulias predicts the back-end system would increase voter turnout by 20 to 30%. He also supports offering pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.
A ‘license to read’
Giannoulias also hopes to modernize the literacy programs introduced by Jim Edgar, who held the office from 1981 to 1991 before serving as governor from 1991 to 1999.
“The one thing about (the office of) secretary of state that’s neat for me is education is a huge issue,” Edgar told Lee Enterprises in an interview last week. “Well, you think, what does the secretary of state have anything to do with education? Through the library, there’s a lot of things you can do for education.”
Illinois is unique in assigning the role of state librarian to its secretaries of state, he said. “There’s no office like it in the rest of the country,” Edgar said. “I think there’s four or five secretary of states that are motor vehicle administrators but they aren’t state librarians.”
Giannoulias has proposed what he has called a “License to Read Program,” a nod to the office’s driver services role.
“We need to make more resources such as e-books and other learning materials more accessible to more people through our public libraries,” Giannoulias said. “Libraries serve as the cornerstone of every single community. We want to provide them with more content and increase the availability of book titles for more people regardless of where they live.”
Giannoulias said that one of his goals in office is to decrease the digital divide, or the discrepancy in accessibility of online materials.
“This is an incredibly important part of the job,” Giannoulias said. “We oversee three library systems which comprise more than 600 (public) libraries across the state.”
The office is also responsible for providing information to the state government.
“It’s important to remember that this office is really the only executive office that touches more lives on a daily basis than any other executive branch office in state government, because it touches people’s lives in so many different ways,” Brady said.
Roughly 18% of Illinois adults have limited literacy skills, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“You have the opportunity to do a lot of good, to do a lot of good public policy if you want to do that,” Edgar said.
Giannoulias’ first step towards “doing good” was signing an executive order for ethics on his first day in office. The order creates a more robust policy against workplace harassment and violence.
“I want the people of Illinois to know that ethics and transparency will be at the forefront of every single decision we make,” Giannoulis said. “I promised during the campaign trail and in my inaugural speech that on my first day in office to sign an executive ethics order.”
Some of the measures outlined in the order include ensuring state vehicles are only used to conduct state business, revamping the training for secretary of state inspectors and creating an Inspector General official email address where the public can send concerns.
“People have lost trust in government. They’ve lost trust in the political system,” Giannoulias said. “Anything we can do to help rebuild that trust is important.”
The ethics package also prevents workers in the secretary of state’s office from contributing to the officeholder’s political fund.
“I want the people of Illinois to know, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, to know that the secretary of state’s office will be transparent, will be free of any scandal or corruption, and that I will do everything I can to help rebuild trust in government,” Giannoulias said.
Hours before Giannoulias took office, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a measure that authorized pay increases for constitutional officers as well as lawmakers and top agency directors.
Under the pay schedules outlined in the bill, the secretary of state’s salary will increase from $165,400 to $183,300. The origin of the measure was Pritzker’s request that the General Assembly raise pay for his administration’s agency directors to recruit and retain top talent.
“I do think that no one should ever run for office because they want to make money, that’s a fundamental belief of mine,” Giannoulias said when asked about the measure. “I also think that in this day and age we need the best and brightest in government, and people should be paid accordingly, and whatever we can do to get great minds and good people in office is important.”
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January 15, 2023 at 09:52AM