Politics & Government

Major challenges await Bowen’s successor in California

Voting equipment around the state is breaking down. There is limited money for new systems.

A complex statewide voter registration database has been years in the making. And while hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars change hands every day in California, the state’s public-disclosure system confuses searchers and occasionally stops working.

Whoever gets the keys to California’s secretary of state’s office in January will inherit a lengthy to-do list for the post’s role overseeing voting and elections, its most public responsibility. The office also handles businesses filings.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who recently disclosed that she is battling depression, has defended her tenure and blamed politics for would-be successors’ criticism of her office during this year’s campaign. Budget cuts during the recession and a lack of new funding have hampered efforts to improve some programs, she has said, such as the Cal-Access campaign-finance website.

But whether it is Republican Pete Peterson or Democrat Alex Padilla, California’s next secretary of state will need to hit the ground running, county registrars and other experts say.

The November winner will be California’s fourth secretary of state in less than a decade. Former secretary of state Kevin Shelley resigned two years into his term amid allegations of wrongdoing, and appointed replacement Bruce McPherson served a similar time before losing to Bowen in 2006.

Bowen, a former Los Angeles-area legislator, has periodically faced criticism for being disengaged during her nearly eight years in office. The state’s electorate, meanwhile, has become larger, more diverse and much more attached to voting by mail instead of at polling places. Dean Logan, Los Angeles County’s registrar-recorder/county clerk, said the next secretary of state will face immense challenges.

“From my perspective, the issue is really one of leadership and collaboration,” Logan said. “The future of the elections process in California is unclear. Regardless of who gets elected ... there needs to be a recognition that he’s the state’s chief elections official and not just a bureaucrat.”

Earlier this year, Washington, D.C.-based Pew Charitable Trusts ranked California’s election performance 49th out of 50 states, citing low rates of mail-ballot return and a difficult website. But David Becker, Pew’s director of election initiatives, said California is poised for a quick turnaround.

“There is the technological know-how in California, the quality of county election officials, and the number of people who want to help,” Becker said. “It’s exciting from the perspective of all Americans. You solve the problems in California, you can solve the problems in the entire country.”

Launched by former Secretary of State Bill Jones in the late 1990s, the state’s system for tracking campaign money, Cal-Access, has changed little over the years. There is no easy way for the public to follow special interests’ independent expenditures, a major part of California campaigns for more than a decade. The data also have errors that make it harder for the public to use; for example, contribution reports filed since January 2013 list 17 different spellings alone of the California Real Estate Political Action Committee.

In addition, the aging system sometimes breaks down, leaving the public in the dark about who is raising money and from where. Fixing Cal-Access, and quickly, has to be “a high priority” for Peterson and Padilla, said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation.

Peterson, the executive director at Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute, says he thinks outside nonprofits such as Berkeley-based MapLight could take the lead on presenting campaign-finance data collected by the secretary of state. Padilla, a state senator from Los Angeles, says he thinks Cal-Access should be dramatically improved but suggested that the public-disclosure website stay in-house. Neither candidate has been clear about how the state should pay for improvements.

Unlike Cal-Access, there are tens of millions of federal dollars set aside for VoteCal, a new statewide voter registration database. VoteCal would allow people to check their registration status online and also would make it easier for people to register when they interact with other government agencies, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles. VoteCal is scheduled to launch by mid-2016.

VoteCal, though, has been beset by technical difficulties and disagreements between vendors and the state since it began in 2007. In August 2013, a state audit questioned the secretary of state’s setting aside up to $131 million in HAVA money for the project, preventing its potential use for other election-modernizing efforts, such as new voting equipment. But Evan Goldberg, the chief deputy secretary of state, said it is the office’s legal interpretation that it cannot certify its compliance with HAVA until it finishes VoteCal.

Meanwhile, counties’ machines are near the breaking point, said Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley.

“That has to be No. 1 on their agenda, as far as I’m concerned,” Kelley, the president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said of Padilla and Peterson.

Some county officials blame Bowen for the situation. Responding to concerns about touch-screen voting machines, Bowen launched a “top to bottom review” of state voting systems after taking office and in August 2007 decertified some types of touch-screen equipment.

Counties around the country also face a problem of aging equipment. In California, though, the problem has been “exacerbated by decertification of equipment,” Logan said.

Goldberg said Bowen stands by her decision, which earned her the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2008. “Let’s remember what this is all about: it’s about ... having confidence that their votes are being accurately counted.”

Most counties have turned to older, state-permitted machines and paid for any repairs themselves. In Riverside County, for example, the county has relied on vote-by-mail machines to handle all of the county’s ballots.

“We’ve had basically eight years of no new voting systems,” said Gail Pellerin, the Santa Cruz County clerk and registrar of voters. “We are dealing with a voting system that is old, breaking down, we can’t find parts, and there’s no wiggle room for improvements.”

Registrars are not the only ones looking for closer relations with the next secretary of state. Leaders of nonprofit organizations that work on elections and voting issues have become frustrated with the office in recent years.

“There are a lot of organizations and people in California who have the passion, skills and expertise to bring into the election process,” Alexander said. “They see the next administration coming and hope for more open lines of communication.”

Just 25 percent of registered voters, and only 18 percent of eligible adults cast ballots in June. As of Sept. 5, an estimated 6.6 million people were eligible to vote but not registered. Nonparticipation rates are particularly high among Latinos, Asians and young people, studies show.

Both candidates have pledged to improve registration and turnout. Padilla said it’s time to employ an “all-of-the-above strategy.” Peterson, an expert in civic engagement, and Web and printing design, said he would bring those skills to encouraging people to register and vote.

Budget hurdles also will confront the November winner. In June, as California election workers processed late-arriving primary mail ballots, legislative budget writers in Sacramento refused to restore $100 million in state reimbursement for counties’ vote-by-mail costs in the 2014-15 budget.

Advocates want the next secretary of state to be a vocal advocate for office funding. “We need someone who’s going to fight for this,” said Alexander, whose organization recently released a three-county study that found 0.8 percent of mail ballots cast were never counted.

On top of those duties, whoever succeeds Bowen will oversee the launch of California Business Connect. In the works since 2010, the project will replace a paper-based system that had large backlogs a couple of years ago. The Legislature allocated more money to the program, adding dozens of workers, and reduced turnaround times to several days.

The next secretary of state needs to bring additional technology to the business division, “making it an even more business-friendly and seamless experience,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee