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March Fong Eu Achievement Award Recipient: Connie Lawson

Determining what to fight for is one of the most difficult decisions a public servant can make, but one decision in particular is proving Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson prescient. Lawson fought for legislation modernizing the Notary Public office and authorizing remote online notarization (RON). With the global COVID-19 crisis forcing people to conduct business online more than ever, her support for technology has become as important for economic reasons as for public health and safety.

In a recent interview, Lawson said she sets her priorities and then does everything she can to live by them, and she's made bringing Notary law into the 21st Century, with a focus on technology, one of those priorities.

As Secretary of State, Lawson is in charge of Indiana's more than 90,000 Notaries Public, the largest force of public servants in the state. When she entered office in 2012, one of her key priorities was to modernize the way people in Indiana do business, and Notaries were going to be an important focus of her reform initiatives.

Those reforms included sweeping changes to education requirements for new Indiana Notaries and continuing education for those who are already commissioned. She was also behind the bill that authorized remote online notarization, bringing new technology to the arena and leapfrogging other states’ outdated Notary regulations. She's also served as a national leader on business reforms and election guidelines as former president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

For her dedication to reforming Indiana Notary law, including requiring more education and updating fee schedules, and for her fight to bring cutting-edge business technology to the Hoosier state, Lawson has been named the National Notary Association's 2020 March Fong Eu Achievement Award recipient.

"The vision and leadership shown by Secretary of State Connie Lawson demonstrates how committed she is to improving the Notary office."

NNA President & CEO Tom Heymann

Lawson said she was surprised she had been nominated for the award, considering the hundreds of thousands of Notaries around the country and scores of policy makers to choose from. "It was an honor for Indiana to be singled out for the work we've done here," she said. But it wasn't done in a vacuum — the "prestige of this award" belongs to the entire Business Services team, she said.

"The vision and leadership shown by Secretary of State Connie Lawson demonstrates how committed she is to improving the Notary office," said NNA President & CEO Tom Heymann. "We are proud to honor her with the March Fong Eu Achievement Award."

"Secretary Lawson's commitment to modernizing Indiana's Notary laws in successive legislative sessions is a remarkable accomplishment," said Bill Anderson, the NNA's Vice President of Government Affairs.

Public Service Beginnings

Lawson, who has been in public life for more than 3 decades, including serving as a state senator for 16 years, didn't start her career seeking public office. She and her husband, Jack, run a real estate business. That's when she began noticing issues with the local county clerk's office and believed she could do a better job, she said.

"I didn't start out thinking my career would be in politics, I can tell you that," she said. "I saw a need — it wasn't like a chorus of angels or anything — but I felt like my community needed someone who would work for them," and perform their duties with accuracy. "That's when I ran for county clerk in 1988."

She's since come to appreciate how Notaries are central to some of the largest transactions in our lives, such as buying homes and cars and recording deeds. It's easy to care about Notaries and the work they do when it touches "every aspect of everyday life," she said. "You really don't know how important their services are until you need them."

In fact, that's the reason she's pushed so hard for Notary reforms, including the passage of two pieces of legislation. Senate Bill 539, signed in 2017, introduced sweeping reforms to long-untouched notary laws. The law raised the fee that Notaries may charge from $2 to $10; allowed Notaries to charge a reasonable travel fee; raised the amount of a notary bond to $25,000; and required applicants for a commission to take and pass an exam and take a continuing education course every two years.

Secretary of State Connie Lawson accepts the March Fong Eu Achievement Award.

Technology Pioneer

It was Lawson's hope to include the authorization of remote online notarization in the bill, but said she was missing buy-in from all her stakeholders.

Some industry voices, including the state bar association and title companies, pushed back, and she knew she'd have to get their agreement before she could return. One of the most specific concerns centered on which state's law would apply to remote notarizations when the parties were in different jurisdictions. If the Notary was not in Indiana, for example, another state's law could take precedence.

By the following year when everyone at the table agreed on the revised provisions, Senate Bill 372 authorizing remote notarizations was enacted and signed into law. But the bill's success was just the beginning of getting the system up and running.

"Any time you can get a piece of legislation passed, you have a great accomplishment, but we also had challenges," Lawson said. "We had to work on getting the Notary database up to date; we had to work on writing rules and getting rules approved, so there was a lot that needing to be done."

Rebecca Longfellow, who works with Lawson as the Director of Business Services, said the COVID-19 pandemic spurred them to fast-track implementation of the remote Notary program, including approving remote technology vendors. "When all this came about, we didn't have remote vendors approved, so getting them to apply, seeing demonstrations, and approving vendors became a priority. We also provided a paper application process for Notaries which allowed us to implement remote Notary three months ahead of schedule." she said.

It's not surprising Lawson would support remote notarizations considering how she's prioritized updating technology at the Secretary of State's office. "Our technology was way behind the times," she noted, but that's all changing.

The Future of Leadership

The demand for paperless systems continues to increase, and technology will continue to evolve and improve over time, she predicted. A big reason is that technology provides greater safety measures. One of the biggest benefits of RON, for example, is that the transaction is recorded, which wards off a certain amount of fraud. And better technology allows states to respond faster and more efficiently in crises, such as the pandemic.

Of course, as the system becomes more sophisticated, so do the criminals. That's why Lawson has also prioritized more and continuing education for Notaries; increased surety bonds to account for higher liability in the course of doing their jobs; and pushed for more authority to handle Notary misconduct.

Indiana Notary Daniel Lewis congratulates Secretary Lawson.

Coming up, Lawson noted major challenges facing Notaries. Remote tech vendors that offer services for multiple types of documents often provide a Notary with a wide range of freedom, so they'll have to be up to date on the law to ensure they don't notarize an inappropriate document.

Employers are also going to face challenges in learning how to properly compensate Notaries considering the personal liability they're exposed to in the course of performing their duties.

Lawson said she's proud of the work she and her partners have done to modernize Notary practices in the state — for both Notaries and the larger community they serve.

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