State of the secretary of state

On the future of elections

Debra Bowen’s first year as California’s secretary of state—the person we elected to oversee and safeguard our elections—was literally a “profile in courage.”

In 2007, her first year in office, she ordered a top-to-bottom review of California’s voting machines. The uncovering of security flaws led to the decertification of several electronic voting systems and the adoption of less flashy but more reassuring optical-scan machines. That earned Bowen the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2008, for “her bold leadership and steadfast resolve to protect the integrity of the vote.”

Her administration has been somewhat quieter—some would say less courageous—since.

Her office has been faulted by some for the long delays in implementing the new VoteCal statewide voter database, which, in turn, has delayed changes to improve California’s dismal voter participation rates—like same-day voter registration and voter preregistration for high schoolers.

The Cal-Access campaign-financing and lobbying database keeps crashing, which Bowen complains is because of a lack of money—to no one’s satisfaction.

It took too much coaxing and complaining by good-government groups and California newspapers earlier this year to get Bowen to provide raw campaign-finance data and allow those orgs to make the info available in more user-friendly formats.

A while back, The Sacramento Bee editorialists questioned her commitment to the gig after an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2011, saying, “She needs to do more than occupy the position.” Ouch.

Bowen is terming out next year, and already several candidates are promising to rejuvenate the office. Democratic state Sens. Leland Yee and Alex Padilla, and Sacramento activist Derek Cressman, have all announced their candidacies. As has Republican Pete Peterson, who heads up the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University.

There isn’t space here to do an in-depth roundup of each candidate. Yee sponsored online-voter-registration laws and is a champion of transparency. He was the only Democratic senator to oppose the Legislature’s wrongheaded attempt to undermine the California Public Records Act.

Padilla has also sponsored legislation making it easier to register to vote, including a law requiring the state to make it possible for voters to check their registration status and absentee-ballot information online. The fact that California lacks such a system is one reason that California ranked 48th out of 50 states in administration of elections—just above Alabama and Mississippi—according to report by the Pew Center on the States and the California Voter Foundation.

This being a local column, Bites wants to highlight the candidacy of the local guy, Cressman. He has worked for the last couple decades with good government organizations, such as Common Cause and the Public Interest Research Groups, and says the state needs an elections expert to modernize California’s elections machinery.

The senators might seem to have an advantage in a statewide election campaign. But Cressman says he’s not worried about Padilla and Yee’s name recognition. “Most voters can’t even name their own state senator, let alone someone from someone else’s district.” By contrast, his supporters are “people who already care about issues central to this race.”

Along with fixing Cal-Access and getting VoteCal properly implemented, he wants to reboot the state’s voter guide and make it into a multiplatform online tool, with ballot arguments but also video, links and analysis of campaign finances. It would not only be more engaging, says Cressman, but the information also “could really level the playing field for grassroots candidates.”

Cressman says the state has a history of ridiculously expensive tech projects, but this one need not be. “When you think of YouTube, it’s not inherently expensive to use something like that.”

Cressman is also making Citizens United and the corrosive influence of campaign cash a central issue in his campaign. Around the country, Common Cause has been pushing state and local measures calling for a U.S. Constitutional amendment to clarify that corporations are not people, overturn Citizens United and allow states to limit political expenditures. Voters in Los Angeles, Richmond and San Francisco have approved measures instructing their congressional reps to support an amendment. Cressman says as secretary of state, he would hold hearings on the issue and make sure elected representatives are following voter instructions.

That’s exactly the reason Cressman shouldn’t be elected secretary of state, says Republican political consultant Tony Quinn. He complained on the political blog Fox&Hounds Daily that Cressman’s interest in Citizens United shows he will be an “ideological” secretary of state.

As if the other candidates would somehow be apolitical technicians, only there to quietly upgrade our voting infrastructure. Not a chance. Bites would welcome a candidate who makes some noise about what is currently the biggest threat to the integrity of our elections. The next secretary of state ought to be competent and a little courageous.