Monday, May 15, 2006

Secretary of State's race in the news

Today's Copley newspapers feature this story by Michael Gardner which takes a look at the office of the Secretary of State and the competitive primary contest being waged for the Democratic Party's nomination. The article spotlights the Democratic Party's two top contenders, State senators Deborah Ortiz and Debra Bowen, and discusses their positions on numerous issues. Excerpts are featured below.


They hold down the same job, belong to the same political party and even have similar first names.

So it's no surprise that state Sens. Debra Bowen and Deborah Ortiz are working to strike distinct chords with Democrats in a low-key primary campaign to be California's elections chief.

"In many respects, we are alike," said Ortiz, of Sacramento. "What distinguishes us is independence."

Bowen, of Marina del Rey, said it's her experience pushing election reforms that sets her apart.

"These are the issues I've worked on in the Legislature," Bowen said.

There are major divisions, however. The two Democrats part ways on same-day registration and whether voters should cast ballots on weekends. While Bowen has zeroed in on elections and privacy, Ortiz's career is marked more by health issues.

The survivor of the June 6 primary will go up against incumbent Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, a Republican and former state senator appointed by the governor to serve out the term of Democrat Kevin Shelley, who resigned amid scandal 14 months ago.


The secretary of state is primarily responsible for upholding the integrity of the ballot box for nearly 17 million voters in 58 counties.

"The secretary of state decides whether voting systems are safe," said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation.

"It's such an important function that many states don't have it (elections) as part of the secretary of state. They have a separate elections board," she said.

Beyond the elections division, the secretary of state maintains a vast online database of campaign contributions and lobbyist earnings.

The site helps the public track where money is being spent to influence elections as well as legislation and holds a trove of elections data. The office also runs California's domestic partners registry and is the keeper of many corporate filings.

Like many other statewide races, the secretary of state campaign features a pair of entrenched Democrats about to be booted out of the Legislature by term limits. Bowen, 50, and Ortiz, 49, are in their eighth and final year in the Senate.

Bowen has used her pulpit as chairwoman of a Senate elections committee to promote legislation aimed at the Secretary of State's Office and also to improve voter confidence. She has been sharply critical of the handling of new voter registration requirements and California's compliance with a federal directive to introduce the next generation of electronic voter systems.

She has challenged McPherson's certification of some voting machines that critics say invite fraud and may be difficult for the disabled to use. And she has fought unsuccessfully to ban a secretary of state from taking sides in contested races or on ballot measures.

Some critics claim Bowen is using her position to carry measures and issue statements that attack McPherson as much as make policy. Asked if she agreed, Ortiz said, "It's appropriate for Sen. Bowen to advocate, but it's a fine line."

Bowen said she has always tried to distance policy from politics. But, she noted, "What's policy and what's political is always entwined."

While in the Senate, Ortiz has concentrated on expanding affordable health care. She fought to keep junk food out of schools, lost an effort to force insurers to cover stop-smoking aids and demanded more accountability from those in charge of the state's $3 billion stem-cell research program.

More recently, she introduced legislation to fund a biomonitoring program that would use volunteers to gauge chemical buildups in the body and the potential health effects.

On election issues, Ortiz has expressed frustration with her inability to secure additional funding for the state Fair Political Practices Commission, the agency that enforces campaign finance laws.

Bowen and Ortiz both oppose forcing voters to show identification at the polls, saying it would discourage turnout and raise discrimination issues.

"No one has yet demonstrated that the absence of voter identification has increased fraud," Ortiz said.

And they are opposed to casting ballots by e-mail.

"We're not even close to voting over the Internet. We can't solve the problems of security at polling places today," Bowen said.

"Internet voting lacks security," Ortiz agreed. "It deserves consideration, but it's not there yet."

The candidates split, however, over some other key issues.

Bowen opposes same-day registration, saying the state has struggled to process requests filed within the current deadline of 15 days before an election.

"We can't manage the system we have," Bowen said.

Ortiz said Californians should be able to register on election day as a way to stimulate interest and turnout.

"We must inspire voters -- not scare them," Ortiz said.

Bowen also rejects weekend voting, saying it could conflict with religious observances and create security headaches. Ortiz wants to explore weekend voting.

Ortiz and Bowen agree that voters should not be restricted to a particular precinct. They support allowing voters to go to the most convenient polling place.

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