Election 2014 Q&A: Secretary of state candidates on partisanship, fraud, Cal-Access

The Bee’s editorial board met with the four leading candidates seeking to replace termed-out Secretary of State Debra Bowen. The secretary of state is California’s chief elections officer. We asked the candidates about whether the job ought to be nonpartisan, voter fraud and Cal-Access, the state’s campaign finance database.

Derek Cressman

Voting rights advocate – Democrat

Do you think it matters if the secretary of state is nonpartisan?

It is important that we have an impartial secretary of state. I think that continuing to elect a secretary of state without designating a party label on the ballot is not a good way of getting us there. You could have a Karl Rove or a Steve Maviglio – name your highly partisan person – who with a million dollars can easily get elected secretary of state but just not have that designation next to them. I have spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what is the best way to come up with a chief elections official, and there is no good way. It’s kind of like picking a judge. Electing them is problematic. Appointing them is problematic.

What would you do with Cal-Access?

My inclination would be to try to rebuild it from the bottom up in-house, seeking assistance from, in essence, volunteer CEOs in Silicon Valley, bringing in in-house staff and the foundation world. I think that would be faster and more successful than bidding it out.

Alex Padilla

California state senator – Democrat

Is there anything in the department you would change?

The biggest challenge in that department is technology and modernization starting with Cal-Access. We need something new and we need something better, not just from a reliability standpoint but user-friendliness standpoint ... to track how the money is moving on a much more regular basis.

What do you think about the idea that the secretary of state should be a nonpartisan position?

I think the more important question is, whoever the secretary of state is, are they conducting themselves in a way that is, whether it’s nonpartisan, consistent with the responsibilities and duties of the job? (That) the way they are doing their jobs doesn’t call into question the election results or the integrity of our elections?

Pete Peterson

Educator/institute director – Republican

Do you think the secretary of state should be nonpartisan?

It’s one of two things I agree with our current secretary of state on … it introduces the specter of what she calls secret partisanship. I’m making my argument as a Republican based on my definition of what it means to be a Republican, why I’m running, and if people don’t like that or people just look at the ballot and say there’s an “R,” that guy is off my radar screen, so be it.

Is voter fraud a real issue?

I don’t think it’s as big an issue as folks on my side of the aisle have made it. ... The problem with not having a statewide voter database is we have no idea as to how accurate our statewide voter roll is.

Dan Schnur

Political involvement educator – No party preference

What’s the benefit of it being a nonpartisan job?

(It’s) important for the voters to see that the person overseeing the state elections is not an advocate for an outcome on one side or the other. ... Running as a nonpartisan candidate and serving as a nonpartisan officeholder says to the voters of California: “I am going to do everything a human being can to be an honest broker in this process.”

I think the second is more practical. I don’t think it’s possible to be a nonpartisan from 9 to 5 and then go out and campaign and fund-raise for candidates in one party or the other at night and on the weekends. Most human beings don’t come with that kind of toggle switch.

How do you feel about Voter ID?

This is an issue both parties use to frighten their respective bases for partisan gain. The courts have made it very clear ... that there is a [compromise] on this. The courts have said that a state legislature, if it so chooses, can require photo identification for voting. But ... only if they provide all necessary financial and transportation and logistical systems for any eligible voter who may be denied it because they don’t have those resources of their own. It’s much easier ... for Republicans to frighten conservatives about voter fraud and for Democrats to rev up their base about voter suppression.