SoS: A Chance at Reform?

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

“The Secretary of State’s Office is comprised of nearly 500 people who are dedicated to making government more transparent and accessible in the areas of elections, business, political campaigns, legislative advocacy and historical treasures.” So reads the first sentence of the California Secretary of State’s “About the Agency” webpage.

If this is the standard for success, it’s fair to say Debra Bowen has had a rough second term.

From a Cal-Access database of political campaign contributions crashing late last year, to the persistent difficulties in developing an online voter registration platform, to the continuing weird story about her oversight of a compensation fund for some Medi-Cal recipients, Californians are left to hope that the state’s “historical treasures” are still “accessible”. Bowen’s efforts since her re-election in 2010 had the SacBee Editorial Board wondering if she had “lost interest in her elections job.”

But the recent machinations over ballot positioning of two tax initiatives, and the still mysterious decision by county registrars to give Governor Brown’s initiative a higher placement, offer the Secretary a chance to redeem what has been a woeful time in office. The recent ruling by Judge Kenney highlights the problem of having different – and often opaque – ballot qualification processes on a county-by-county basis. This time it involves billions of dollars in prospective tax dollars, but next time it could be worse: remember Bush/Gore in Florida?

While Bowen has been disturbingly quiet during all the intrigues coming out of both the county offices and the Legislature, she displayed more than a hint of partisanship in her quick action to place Molly Munger’s initiative down in the ninth ballot position (now Prop 38) out of eleven.

Unfortunately, it’s not the first time the Secretary of State’s office has been accused of making partisan decisions related to political engagement. Right about this time last year, Bowen came out in support of the ill-fated SB 168 (eventually vetoed by Governor Brown), which would have eliminated pay-by-signature gathering.  As I opined back then, while the measure had an air of good government, really what it did was protect groups who could afford the number of extra signature compilers necessary in this less efficient system: namely unions and large corporations. As Democratic strategist Joe Trippi wrote at the time, “This won’t deter well-financed special interests, but it very well could shut the door on genuine, grassroots citizen movements.”

Will the Secretary of State take the current controversy as an opportunity to finally bring transparency and consistency to our patchwork of county processes.

Let us remember that this is a Secretary of State who first claimed fame in the office by rightly limiting the use of electronic voting machines in the state after problems were uncovered in the machines’ source code. This after hundreds of millions of dollars had already been spent. The decision earned Bowen a “John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award”. Upon learning that she would be given the honor, Bowen’s press secretary at the time, Kate Folmar, declared, “People should never be afraid to ask questions about their government or the way they elect their leaders. That’s not just right; it’s a responsibility.”

Indeed. And along with the “way [we] elect [our] leaders” should be added, “the way we vote on ballot initiatives.”

With a few notable exceptions, the Secretary of State’s office has been the right field of our constitutional offices – a little-regarded (and little-known) position that was often a soft landing place for an outgoing legislator. But as recent events demonstrate, the position can hold sway over how the public will engage on multi-billion dollar decisions, and these must not be influenced by partisanship or insider relationships. It’s why we vote for the office separately. Now that the positions are set for November, let’s hope our chief elections officer can help lead the way to this never happening again.

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