SB 1253 and Our Next Secretary of State

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

While responses to SB 1253 (“Ballot Initiative Transparency Act”) range from the disappointed to the ecstatic and everywhere in the middle, what can’t be disputed is this: our next Secretary of State is going to be pretty busy for at least the next four years.

Along with the multiple challenges currently miring the office – from the delayed VoteCal voter database implementation to the still-antiquated Cal-Access campaign finance system to business registration problems – the Legislature has piled on more responsibilities in reaction to the legitimate concerns we Californians have about how our hallowed initiative and referendum process is conducted. In so doing, they have further defined the type of person who should be leading this vital agency as it has lurched into the 21st century.

For the record, I support SB 1253, and see it as a meaningful step in the exasperating history of initiative reform efforts. As someone who has worked in the civic engagement field for almost a decade, the bill addresses several important issues.  Allowing initiative proponents to withdraw a measure after signatures have been gathered, opening initiatives to public review earlier in the signature-gathering process, and having the Attorney General’s office write titles/summaries in clearer language with public involvement are long-discussed changes.

Others, such as tasking the Secretary of State’s office to use technology to better engage and inform Californians reveal the Legislature’s understanding of just how poorly the office has performed in this area.

While not fundamentally changing the Secretary of State’s job description, SB 1253 certainly puts a spotlight on several particular qualities our next Secretary must have to ensure effective implementation of the measure:

1.     Commitment: From creating a new voter information website (Elections Code SEC. 14/9082.7) to developing a new procedure for California’s voters to “opt out of receiving by mail the state ballot pamphlet” in order to receive it “in an electronic format (SEC. 16/9094.5) to overseeing a new level of signature qualification (25%) to initiate the earlier Legislative review process, the next Secretary of State will have to devote full focus and attention to this job. This demands a promise to voters that candidates for Secretary of State will seek no other office for the full four years of what will be a very hectic term. I have made this commitment to California’s voters.

2.     Background in Gov 2.0 Technology: As has been made evident from these last few years, many of the office’s main problems center on technology. As I tweeted out a couple months ago, when the office closed the entire website for maintenance (seriously.): “In 2014, when technology breaks, democracy breaks.” While many of the technology-related projects outlined in SB 1253 should have been started years ago, the bill puts on the next Secretary’s “To Do List” several jobs that will further demand that our next officeholder have a background in a particular field of technology known broadly as “Gov 2.0”. This is a set of online platforms, applications and social media that are used to connect the public with government.

But along with this should be an understanding that the best solutions might not (and probably won’t) come from within government or through the regular technology procurement process. So many of the advances in the government technology space are coming through unique public-civic partnerships with groups like Code for America, and the newly launched Brigade. I’ve said on several occasions, the easiest to use campaign finance database in California resides not on the Secretary of State’s Cal-Access website, but here on the non-profit MapLight’s website. With a professional background in web development and many years of experience in using the latest online platforms to bring greater transparency in and engagement with government, even training government officials in how to use technology in public engagement, I’m uniquely qualified (and excited) to address the panoply of technology challenges before the next administration.

3.     Non-Partisanship: As Steve Greenhut opines in his piece,“SB 1253’s obvious goal is to bring the Legislature more directly into the process and to at least somewhat reduce the role of California voters.” As I’ve said, while some Republicans have come out against this particular area of the bill, I support SB1253…as far as it goes.

But the great paradox of SB 1253 is that it hints at possible further incursions by the Legislature into certain areas of the initiative process, while not going nearly far enough in others. The section on the title/summary, for example, calls on the Attorney General to “invite and consider public comment in preparing each ballot title and summary (SEC. 13/9051).” As I have written, I think the best way to compose the extremely important title and summary “in clear and concise terms, understandable to the average voter, and in an objective and nonpartisan manner” is to convene a type of Citizen’s Initiative Review (already used in Oregon) where in a very transparent and public way, Californians can be directly included in writing the title and summary. I have heard that other reform proponents would like to move this responsibility to the LAO, which I would not object to. Suffice it to say, this Attorney General (and others) have demonstrated on several occasions an inability to write “an objective and nonpartisan” title/summary.

At a time when initiative reform has moved under SB 1253, the question becomes how far and in what directions will it continue in the coming years. Californians should want a Secretary of State with a history of non-partisan policy leadership who will keep their interests (not special interests) as the paramount consideration – who will fight to defend the ballot box against Legislative overreach, but also push for further reforms that will make sure voters are involved and informed. As I wrote in these pages several months ago, I had the least partisan background of all the candidates in the primary, and I definitely do now.

If this were a job interview, I’m confident in my qualifications compared to my opponent’s. But it’s not a job interview; it’s a political interview. Still, I want to thank the Legislature in passing SB 1253 for further clarifying who will be the best candidate for the job.

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