For a tech geek who has never been described as flashy, Debra Bowen demonstrated a rare flair for the dramatic late Friday night in Sacramento.
With only minutes to spare before a midnight deadline to determine whether the various electronic voting machines used by counties were reliable, California's bleary-eyed secretary of state concluded there was the potential for serious security breaches. She decertified the voting machines used in 39 counties, including Los Angeles County, whose InkaVote system could be reinstated in time for the February primary. She also imposed a slew of security protections for upcoming elections.
The late-night suspense and controversial decision -- one that is certain to place California at the center of the national debate on electronic voting and cause headaches for already overworked county election officials -- led to some immediate grumblings that Bowen was overreacting and seeking the spotlight.
But such claims are far off the mark, according to several people who have observed and worked with Bowen over her nearly 15 years of public service. The lawyer-cum-Democratic politician, they say, has earned high marks for an impressive mix of smarts, determination and a no-nonsense attitude as she has championed some important, if low-profile, issues over the years.
"She's one of the few people who, when they make a splashy decision like this, it's not about the headlines," said Ned Wiggelsworth, a former policy advocate for Common Cause, which lobbies for campaign finance reform. "It's about the issue."
After more than a decade in the state Legislature, Bowen, 51, prohibited from seeking reelection because of term limits, unseated Republican Bruce McPherson in a close race last year. She won despite raising far fewer campaign funds, becoming one of only six women in California history to capture a statewide post. The race swung on the two candidates' differing views on the electronic voting machines, with Bowen voicing doubts about them and promising to conduct a review.
To those who have tracked Bowen's time in government, her interest in the secretary of state's utterly unglamorous but important job of overseeing elections in California came as little surprise. It is a natural extension, they said, of a career focused largely on the nexus of citizens' rights and technology.
Raised in Illinois, Bowen earned her law degree at the University of Virginia and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, where she eventually came to focus on environmental law. The obstacles she routinely hit while trying to access relevant information held by government agencies spurred her to run for office, she said in an interview.
Soon after joining the state Assembly in 1993, where she served three terms representing a South Bay district, Bowen co-authored and won an improbable fight for legislation that required the Legislature's workings to be put on the Internet.
It was an early, telling battle.
"She never followed my path blindly, which annoyed me," said former Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, recalling the two terms Bowen served in the Senate after she was termed out of the Assembly.
"She's special," Burton said. "She's beyond reproach. If she thought something was wrong or she didn't agree with something, she had no problem looking me in the eye and saying, 'No.' "
During her time in the Senate, Bowen remained relatively unknown outside of Sacramento but earned respect among her colleagues. She took on the issue of identity theft, pushing through a law that forced financial institutions to take greater security precautions with clients' personal information. After other high-level committee positions, including chairwoman of the Senate's energy committee during the state's energy crisis of 2001, she went on to head the Senate Elections Committee, where she began questioning in earnest the reliability of electronic voting machines.
Bowen blamed the bizarre circumstances surrounding her last-second decision Friday on the voting machine companies, saying they were slow to provide needed information. More than one observer, however, commented on Bowen's taste for detailed technology reports and wondered, only half-jokingly, if she read every line of every report before talking to reporters.
"She is very capable of wrapping her mind around some very complicated issues," said Kim Alexander, founder of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation. "She's a bit of a tech geek."
Bowen doesn't dispute the characterization.
The daughter of an engineer, Bowen said she was prohibited by school officials from taking drafting courses in high school and discouraged from pursuing a career in science. "If I had been a boy," she said, "I would have been an engineer."
"I just find these issues so interesting," she added. "Instead of revisiting issues we have been dealing with since time immemorial, where only the details change but the fundamental questions remain the same, this is looking at technology that is giving rise to a whole new set of questions that no one has thought about. I love that."