Yesterday California's new Secretary of State, Bruce McPherson, was in Washington, D.C. to meet with members of the federal Election Assistance Commission. His purpose was two-fold: to secure the rest of California's HAVA money; and to allay the EAC's concerns that past mismanagement of these funds will be corrected. Zachary Coile's story in today's San Francisco Chronicle provides more details.
McPherson's task is daunting: He is taking over the agency just as California and other states face fast-approaching deadlines from Congress to replace outdated voting machines and build a new statewide voter registration database to combat voter fraud.
"You've heard the old saw about building an airplane as it rolls down the runway?" said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that tracks election reform in the states. "McPherson is trying to climb in the cockpit as it rolls down the runway. ... He knows the issues or at least is coming up to speed, but he's facing a huge task over the next several months."
California must have its voter registration database ready by Jan. 1, and even McPherson admits the state is behind schedule. After scrapping a plan to build a new $40 million database, the state will now upgrade its current system, Calvoter, to allow faster entry of new voter registrations by election officials in the state's 58 counties.
"We're moving ahead incrementally," McPherson said, but added the state will barely meet the federal rules and will need to improve the database later.
The political scandal that engulfed Shelley last year led to further delays. The Legislature and the governor effectively froze Shelley's spending authority in August after the allegations first surfaced.
County election officials also complained that Shelley's micromanaging style delayed the flow of federal money. Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters Connie McCormack, who joined McPherson in Washington, said the new secretary of state has assured counties they will get their money more quickly in the future.
California expected to gain about $350 million of the $3.1 billion appropriated by Congress for election reform after the disputed 2000 presidential race. The state has received about $180 million thus far, but is waiting for the remaining $170 million.
On Thursday, McPherson gave Election Assistance Commission Chair Gracia Hillman and Vice Chair Paul DeGregorio a certificate of compliance, signed by Schwarzenegger, which states that California is following federal voting rules.
The document was the first step toward gaining California's remaining federal voting funds. Hillman also asked McPherson to send a letter next week detailing how his office has responded to a state auditor's report in December, which harshly criticized Shelley's handling of federal funds.
Hillman said she expected the $170 million will be released shortly, calling it "money California desperately needs." She added that the commissioners have been impressed with McPherson's initial moves, including hiring experienced election officials as his top deputies.
The commission, which lacks its own investigative staff, is expected to sign a contract this week with an audit team from the Interior Department's inspector general's office to conduct the probe of Shelley's spending practices. Hillman said she expects it will take four months to complete the inquiry.