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Editorial: What Debra Bowen’s struggle with mental illness tells us

Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s recent statement that she suffers from depression appropriately elicited compassion for her condition and praise for her decision to share a personal battle with mental illness.

She received notes of support from all over the state after the Los Angeles Times reported the story. Bowen later told The Sacramento Bee that though she was fighting with a resurgence of her disease, she would continue to lead the office through the last election of her tenure, even if she had to run things from the mobile home where she’s living at the edge of town.

No one is asking Bowen to step down, and no one should. It would be unkind and pointless right now, just months away from the end of her final term.

But the revelation helps answer questions The Bee’s editorial board long had raised about Bowen’s lackluster performance. Depression can be a debilitating disease that is characterized by, among other things, a lack of energy, difficulty making decisions and muddled thinking.

The secretary of state’s office has not gone off the rails during her tenure. She has competent staff. But the office’s use of technology has become embarrassingly backward. A state that leads the world in tech innovation should have at the very least a decent website. It doesn’t. The Cal-Access database, once a national model, is clunky and dated by 2014 standards. The process for making business filings has become a barrier to doing business.

Even more problematic is the failure to build a federally mandated voter database. Every other state has one.

Sen. Alex Padilla, a Los Angeles Democrat, and Pete Peterson, a Republican academic, are running to replace Bowen. They’ve been careful not to pillory Bowen. But they both agree about the failings of the secretary of state’s office’s use of technology and innovation.

Padilla said Bowen seems to have satisfied the minimum requirements of the job, but that is low standard. Peterson said he didn’t think the job could be done from home.

Those aren’t low blows. They are legitimate observations. Nor are complaints about Bowen’s performance new. When The Bee’s editorial board endorsed Bowen for a second term in 2010, it do so with reservations, saying she needed to earn her $130,000 salary. Her opponent had not even been a regular voter. If he had not been utterly unprepared to serve, we might not have endorsed her at all.

Bowen deserves accolades for her honesty on this issue. But that doesn’t entitle her to a free pass on her failures as California’s secretary of state. We can’t ignore that the department she’s lead for nearly eight years has suffered right along with her.

We’ve endorsed Padilla to replace Bowen. But whether he or Peterson wins on Nov. 4, the next secretary of state cannot be an absentee. He must devote himself to righting a department that is fundamental to our democracy.