Opinion

Dan Walters: Bowen has a chance to step up, end two terms on a higher note

dwalters@sacbee.comJuly 10, 2014 

When candidates for California secretary of state debated last April, all of them – two Democrats, one Republican and one independent – agreed on one thing: The agency needs a shake-up.

“All four of us on the stage as well as other candidates, I believe, would address the issues … of the secretary of state’s office more aggressively, more innovatively than they’ve been done in many years,” independent Dan Schnur said. “That’s a given.

The candidates implied that Debra Bowen, who was elected in 2006 on a pledge to modernize the office and is being forced out now by term limits, has been a lackluster steward.

Their comments reflected wider criticism of laggard business filing and campaign finance reporting operations, and Bowen’s reluctance to seek much-needed reforms.

Schnur said that when he was the chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, he tried to interest Bowen in improving an infuriatingly clunky campaign finance reporting system called Cal-Access, but was rebuffed.

Schnur didn’t survive the June 3 primary. State Sen. Alex Padilla and Republican Pete Peterson will vie for the office Nov. 4.

As Padilla and Peterson campaign to succeed her, a historic vote recount in the contest for state controller gives Bowen an opening to end her eight-year reign on a higher note – or not.

Former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez hopes that a recount in 15 counties will overcome a 481-vote lead by fellow Democrat Betty Yee, a member of the state Board of Equalization, for a spot on the Nov. 4 ballot, and Yee may follow suit to protect her slender lead.

The recount has exposed election procedure weaknesses. For one thing, as Bowen spokeswoman Shannon Velayas says, “There is no deadline in the law on when recounts are to be completed.”

The first ballots are due to be sent to overseas voters, including military personnel, in eight weeks. It’s quite possible that the Pérez-Yee conflict will not be resolved by then, creating a serious crisis.

Local election officials have turned to Bowen, the state’s chief election officer, for guidance. “I think the secretary of state has to play a role in this,” San Mateo County’s registrar of voters, Mark Church, told The Sacramento Bee. “They are vital to this process.”

Velayas says Bowen wants the recount to be done “as expeditiously as possible” and is conferring with local election officials.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has missed the legal deadline for passing new ballot measures and is taking a monthlong vacation, but will try in August to fashion a new water bond to replace one already on the ballot, which could add to voter confusion.

The Nov. 4 election is threatening to become a logistical disaster that will further alienate voters.

Bowen should step up – perhaps even seek emergency legislation – but so far has been a somewhat passive figure.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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