The secretary of state contest typically attracts sparse media coverage, scant financial resources and little voter interest. This year is no different; nevertheless, it is shaping up to be one of the most competitive statewide races on the November ballot.
Incumbent Bruce McPherson and his challenger, termed-out state Sen. Debra Bowen of Marina del Rey, are in a virtual dead heat among likely voters, recent polls show.
At first blush, they appear similar -- two respected politicians with long tenures in the state Legislature, where they showed a keen interest in the state's electoral system. They support many of the same principles, such as making the office nonpartisan and pressing for campaign finance reform. But they disagree sharply on whether the state's elections are run properly, and particularly on the trustworthiness of electronic voting machines.
Voting advocates say that whoever is elected will play a vital role in the future of the state's and the nation's elections.
"California has provided a lot of leadership for the nation in the area of voting-technology reform," said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, which does not endorse candidates. "Secretary of State McPherson has provided that leadership; Debra Bowen has provided that leadership in her role on the Senate Elections Committee."
Elections across the nation have come under heightened scrutiny in recent years, following the 2000 presidential recount in Florida and the increased use of electronic voting. In California, the 2005 resignation of the last elected secretary of state, Democrat Kevin Shelley -- amid investigations into campaign fundraising and his office's use of federal election money -- also amplified attention on the office.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed McPherson to replace Shelley, and he was unanimously confirmed by the Legislature, including Bowen. McPherson, a moderate Republican, spent 11 years in the state Senate and Assembly. Previously, he worked as a reporter and then editor of his family's newspaper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
McPherson said voters ought to consider his 18-month record. He said he inherited a poorly run office with hostile relationships with election officials in the state's 58 counties and $150-million in frozen federal funding -- and turned it into an efficient, well-organized agency that is viewed as a model by federal officials. In the Legislature, he was author of bills requiring political candidates to disclose financial contributions online, allowing high school students to work at the polls on election day and studying the effectiveness of the Political Reform Act.
"I'm running on a record of accomplishments," he said.
McPherson proposes reforming redistricting through an independent, bipartisan committee; enhancing the online campaign finance disclosure system to make it more accessible; requiring that all political contributions be reported online within 24 hours; banning legislative fundraising during the last month of the session and gubernatorial fundraising during the bill-signing period; and reforming the initiative process so that voters are not overwhelmed by a tidal wave of ballot measures.
One of McPherson's highest priorities is implementing the Help America Vote Act of 2002, a federal measure to help municipalities replace punch-card and lever voting machines with electronic machines that ensure disabled voters' ability to cast ballots independently.
Since his appointment, he has certified five types of electronic voting machines as having ample safeguards for the state's elections.
He noted that the machines worked successfully in last November's special election and the June primary.
"The biggest difference of opinion I have with Debra is that she doesn't trust the systems, and I do," he said.
Bowen, who has represented the South Bay in the state Legislature since 1992, readily agrees.
"The secretary of state believes [electronic voting machines] are fine," she said. "The American public disagrees."
She said she had been "disappointed" in McPherson's performance, particularly what she views as a cozy relationship with voting-machine manufacturers and the Bush administration. If she could revisit his confirmation hearing, Bowen said, she would no longer vote to support him.
"He hasn't been an innovator; he's been a caretaker," she said. "He's taken the word of the voting machine vendors ... rather than what's good for California citizens."
Bowen argues that the machines are far from foolproof, noting that a Princeton University professor and his students testing voting machines recently broke into a Diebold device using a readily available key that is typically used with locks on office furniture, jukeboxes and hotel minibars. If elected, she says, she would require random audits of machines on election day and order a full-scale review of all machines in public use.