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Secretary of State Candidates Debate Electronic Voting

Incumbent McPherson defends reliability of the machines as challenger Bowen says they need stricter monitoring.

October 19, 2006|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — In their only face-to-face debate before the November election, Secretary of State Bruce McPherson and his challenger, state Sen. Debra Bowen, on Wednesday sharply disagreed about the reliability and vulnerability of electronic-voting machines used by many California counties.

Bowen, a Democrat from Marina del Rey, argued that electronic slot machines face greater scrutiny than machines that count votes in nearly two dozen of the state's 58 counties.

If elected, she said, she would revisit the systems that have been approved by the state, and create stricter monitoring requirements.

"The more reviews we have, the more questions are raised. The only way to reassure people is to open up this whole process," said Bowen, who during the debate held up a small gold office key similar to one used by a Princeton professor to break into a Diebold voting machine.

"I want to reassure Californians that voting systems are secure and accurate and safe by opening up the process," she said. "There are far too many secrets."

McPherson argued that he had created the strictest standards in the nation for certifying the machines, and that because of their use, blind and disabled voters were for the first time able to cast their ballots independently and privately.

"In the end, the proof is in the elections," said McPherson, a Republican and former legislator appointed to the office by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 after the resignation of Democrat Kevin Shelley, who was under investigation for wrongdoing in office.

McPherson said that Bowen was slinging "innuendo" and "conspiracy theories," and that if she were elected secretary of state, disabled and blind voters would be disenfranchised.

"You are scaring people in a way that is really shameful," Bowen said. "Bruce, you've been my friend for a long time, and this is not your finest moment in public service."

Though the secretary of state's office is typically a fairly quiet agency, recent events have thrust it into the spotlight.

McPherson on Monday called for the state to sue Shelley over millions of dollars in federal election funds that a federal elections commission found were misspent by the Shelley administration. Bowen dismissed the announcement as campaign "grandstanding."

The secretary of state's race is among the closest on the statewide ticket, but has been swamped by the sea of measures and higher-profile races on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Many Californians know little about McPherson or Bowen, or their positions.

Wednesday's hourlong debate, which was hosted by the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle as it considers an endorsement in the race, took place at the local CBS-TV affiliate.

The bulk of the debate focused on voting machines, but the candidates also reiterated their main election arguments.

McPherson said that he restored $169 million the federal government was withholding from the state, certified five different types of electronic voting machines, put on two successful elections, reached out to the state's ethnic communities, and created faxable ballots for members of the military and others living overseas.

"A year and a half ago when I became secretary of state, the office was a mess. The good news is I cleaned it up," he said. Bowen countered that voters have lost faith in the elections system because of McPherson's certification of voting machines that are insecure, and that his implementation of a statewide voter roll resulted in tens of thousands of newly registered voters being ineligible to cast ballots in June.

"I'm in fact running because of the crises in confidence we have in this country regarding our voting systems," Bowen said. "California voters have not been served well by Mr. McPherson in the past 18 months."

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