Politics & Government

Padilla has long to-do list as California’s election boss

Alex Padilla is taking over a secretary of state’s office that has struggled to keep up with technology amid sagging public engagement in elections. Padilla has promised to modernize the office and work to increase voter registration and turnout rates.
Alex Padilla is taking over a secretary of state’s office that has struggled to keep up with technology amid sagging public engagement in elections. Padilla has promised to modernize the office and work to increase voter registration and turnout rates. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

When he is sworn in Monday as California secretary of state, Alex Padilla, a former two-term state senator and possible candidate for higher office, will assume one of the most-maligned posts in state government.

The secretary of state’s campaign-finance disclosure system is old and confusing, businesses complain about filing delays and a federally required computerized voter registration list is years behind schedule, contributing to a national survey recently ranking California second-to-last in election administration.

Padilla, a Democrat from Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, said fixing all three will be early priorities after he takes office.

“Coming in, I know there’s a lot that I want to help get accomplished and pushed forward. That’s the approach, the urgency I will bring,” said Padilla, who recently completed two terms in the state Senate and is regularly mentioned as a possible future contender for governor or U.S. Senate.

An opportunity for another office could quickly present itself. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer is expected to announce soon whether she will run for re-election in 2016. Padilla, who shares a political consultant with Boxer, has not ruled anything out but suggested in a recent interview that he would pass on any vacancy.

“I’ve worked my butt off for two years to get elected to this position. I’m looking forward to getting to work,” Padilla said. He also has eventful days ahead on the home front – his wife is due in January with the couple’s third child.

A child of Mexican immigrants who earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Padilla has earned a reputation as a business-friendly moderate. He ran political campaigns in his early 20s, worked for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and won election to the Los Angeles City Council at age 26. In 2006, Padilla defeated labor-backed then-Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez in a hard-fought Senate primary.

Last year, Padilla allied with grocery stores on legislation to phase out single-use plastic shopping bags – a proposal that caused him to clash with fellow Latino lawmakers who sided with bag manufacturers and their workers.

Padilla won the secretary of state’s election with 53.6 percent of the vote, making him the fifth person in a dozen years to occupy an office that election groups, business organizations and others say has a backlog of needs in the nation’s most demographically diverse and tech-savvy state.

In 2005, then-Secretary of State Kevin Shelley resigned amid allegations that he misused federal funds, accepted tainted political donations and verbally abused employees. The current outgoing secretary of state, Debra Bowen, moved into a mobile home and is completing her term after public struggles with depression that she described at times as “debilitating.”

VoteCal, the new voter registration database, is finally expected to go live in 2016 after false starts, years after the office started the project. There are no simple and inexpensive fixes for Cal-Access, the campaign-finance system. California Business Connect, a new online business filing project, is still a year away from development.

Padilla’s tenure also begins amid alarm over the record-low 42.2 percent turnout in the Nov. 4 election. “If the secretary of state of California doesn’t take that leadership role and call us to action to improve voter turnout, who is?” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis’ Center for Regional Change.

Padilla said he plans to enlist the state’s tech community and Hollywood in his “all of the above” efforts to raise registration and turnout. His schedule also will include regular public appearances, he said. “If it was hopeless, I wouldn’t have run,” he said.

With state finances on firmer ground, Padilla said he will work to persuade lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown – a former secretary of state – to allocate more money for the office. A main challenge confronting Padilla is something in which lawmakers have had only a minimal role: VoteCal, the new voter registration database. It would make possible same-day voter registration, which advocates say would increase voter turnout, but has been repeatedly delayed by technical glitches and disagreements with vendors.

Padilla said he also will start working next year to revamp Cal-Access, which debuted in the late 1990s and looks much the same today. But he sounded skeptical that improvements will be done in time for the 2016 elections. Experts say the system needs a total makeover, with a cost recently estimated at up to $15 million.

The secretary of state’s office and registrars in California’s 58 counties regularly work together to conduct elections. Some county officials, though, came to have chilly relations with Bowen because they perceived she ignored their concerns.

Earlier this month, Padilla attended election officials’ annual conference. He plans to reprise a listening tour of county registrars’ offices that he took as a candidate.

Neal Kelley, Orange County’s registrar of voters and president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials, said registrars hope for “strong communication” with the Padilla administration.

“We realize you’ve got to put your neck out and take leadership positions,” Kelley said of Padilla’s challenge. “We’re looking for that in a big way.”

Call Jim Miller, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow him on Twitter @jimmiller2.

ALEX PADILLA

Age: 41

Title: Secretary of state-elect; state senator 2006-2014

Résumé highlight: Carried the legislation, signed in September, that phases out single-use plastic shopping bags. The law is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. But plastic bag industry opponents seek to qualify a referendum on the law, which would suspend its implementation.

Chief goal in 2015: Keeping California’s federally required, oft-delayed voter registration database, VoteCal, on schedule for a 2016 launch.

Biggest challenge in 2015: Getting more money for the office from the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown.

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