BISMARCK — One of the first requests for a personalized license plate that came across Lindi Michlitsch's desk at North Dakota's Motor Vehicle Division read "BAMF." The applicant claimed the four letters reflected his friend's initials. They did not.
Michlitsch, then working in the division's support operations, determined the plate was not fit for the roads because it was a thinly veiled acronym containing two dirty words. REJECTED.
A decade later, Michlitsch is now the director of the division. She oversees the process of evaluating requests for personalized plates, which has changed quite a bit since her early days with the division. Under the current rules, a head-scratching request could make it through operations managers, Michlitsch and an anonymous board of reviewers until it winds up with the director of the entire Department of Transportation.
A wide majority of the requests for personalized plates are approved, but in 2018, the department denied 127 applications. Most were rejected for the inclusion of obvious vulgarities or sexual overtones, but several never saw the roads for reasons more obscure.
Behind the plate
Prior to about 10 years, the process for reviewing requests was simpler, involving about six support operations staffers and a few managers, Michlitsch said. Extending the process was a national trend, with departments all over the country adding steps to ensure proper judgments were made, Michlitsch said. However, the changes in North Dakota were spurred by an infamous 2010 rejection that the department initially got wrong.
Fargo resident and vocal atheist Brian Magee had his request denied for a plate reading "ISNOGOD." Magee appealed the decision, arguing that the state was infringing on his freedom of religion by denying his request but approving pro-religion plates like "ILUVGOD." Magee won the appeal after the Attorney General's Office told the department he had a legal right to affix the god-denying plates on the front and back of his Jeep Grand Cherokee.
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Department rules state a request may be rejected for containing vulgarity, racially offensive language or words that advocate illegal activity. Plates may also be denied for including a swear word in a foreign language or a term that "could be reasonably expected to provoke a violent response," but not to limit a legitimate political expression.
The current procedure for rejecting a controversial request can include as many as five steps up the department's ladder. First, an employee in support operations at the Motor Vehicle Division makes the initial rejection. If the submission clearly violates the rules, like a 2018 request for a plate reading "DZNUTS," it may go no further. However, a more questionable call will then be sent to a support operations manager. If the manager still has no definitive answer, the request ends up in Michlitsch's email inbox.
At this point, the plate nearly always goes to the anonymous Plate Review Committee, and that's where it gets interesting.
The committee was developed to sniff out any hidden meanings that may have been missed by the first three referees. Michlitsch selects its members, who serve voluntary five-year terms and range in age from young adults to retirees. Some are department employees and others have never worked in government. Little gets past the diverse group, Michlitsch said.
For example, a 35-year-old who grew up during the 1990s might catch that the request for plates reading "OGKING" refers to the phrase "original gangster," a term popularized to The Crips, a California-based street gang. Likewise, a 65-year-old former state employee would never mistake "JAP" for anything other than a derogatory name for Japanese people used by Americans during and after World War II.
Only Michlitsch knows the identity of the 8-12 members of the committee, and all plate reviews are performed through electronic correspondence, so members don't even know who else sits on the committee. The members are anonymous so they cannot be influenced or tracked down by disgruntled requesters, Michlitsch said. In all, the committee evaluates about 10 plates a month.
After members of the committee make recommendations on the plates, the ultimate decision usually goes to the department's executive board, which currently consists of director Bill Panos and deputy directors Ron Henke, Robin Rehborg and Terra Miller-Bowley. At different points along the way, the department may work with the requester to tailor the application.
The extended review process has proven effective, but it hasn't completely prevented offensive plates from slipping through the cracks. In 2016 the department revoked a personalized plate it had previously issued because it contained a sexually vulgar term when displayed backwards. As a result, the review process now includes looking at each request backwards and upside-down, Michlitsch said.
Popularity of vanity plates
It's a nearly impossible task to drive around Fargo, Bismarck or Grand Forks without seeing a personalized license plate. Many North Dakotans choose to display their names, occupations or beliefs in bold black letters above the scenic Badlands sunrise that graces the bottom of the state's plates.
The department approved more than 9,000 applications for personalized plates in 2018, many of them from returning customers who requested plates that have been approved in prior years. Vanity plates may also be popular, in part, due to the low cost of acquiring them, former department spokeswoman Jamie Olson said. It costs just $25 a year to have a vanity plate in North Dakota, compared to a $100 one-time payment plus a small annual renewal fee in Minnesota.
For Michlitsch, exhibiting a personal message on a license plate communicates a piece of the driver's identity.
"[A personalized plate] tells a little bit more about themselves. It expresses some of their passions or their family, Michlitsch said. "It gives them a chance to say, 'this is something I love or I really enjoy.'"
State Auditor Josh Gallion is among the North Dakota drivers who wears his heart on his bumper. Gallion displayed a special Air Force Veteran plate that read "AUDT1" on his white Lincoln Navigator until he sold the car recently. The plate on his new Toyota Avalon reads "HRTND," showing his love has for his adopted home state. Gallion said the specialized plates also demonstrate the pride he has for his military service and his "work hard, play hard" mentality.
Approved personalized plates are made at Rough Rider Industries, a Bismarck manufacturing facility that employs incarcerated workers.