Big State, BIG Job: New California SoS to Face Numerous Challenges

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One of the many top election jobs up for grabs this fall is the office of California Secretary of State, where incumbent Debra Bowen’s departure leaves her successor with a long list of tasks for managing and updating elections in the Golden State. The Sacramento Bee’s Jim Miller has more:

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 [link], 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.

Part of the problem is that immediately preceding Bowen’s eight years on the job, the Secretary of State’s office saw a period of instability and uncertainty:

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.

The list of tasks facing the new Secretary is both broad and long and encompasses just about every area of election policy:

[T]here 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.”

While both candidates have pledged to hit the ground running, money will be an issue:

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.

Needless to say, the job of administering elections in the nation’s biggest state is shaping up to be a very, very big job. Regardless of who wins the election in November, California’s new Secretary of State will be facing lots of challenges – but will also be able to count on the enthusiasm of lots of election officials and advocates happy for the chance to get to work.

Stay tuned …

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