Democrat Debra Bowen has scored a few notable achievements as California's secretary of State, but she has struggled to make the office function as efficiently as its counterparts in other states — shortcomings that her Republican opponent, Damon Dunn, has made a focus of his campaign. Given four more years on the job, however, we think Bowen could bring several important modernization efforts to fruition. The Times urges voters to reelect her.
The secretary of State is best known for overseeing federal and state elections, a task that includes registering voters, publishing campaign finance reports, tallying votes and guarding against fraud. Yet only a fraction of the office's 470 employees work on elections; instead, most work on registering new businesses and related services.
Bowen transformed state elections in 2007 when she moved swiftly to address security flaws that a team of experts found in electronic voting machines. Bucking opposition from county officials, she ordered most of the e-voting equipment taken out of service. The change didn't disrupt elections, as some county registrars feared. Instead, it put the state in the vanguard of a national shift away from touch-screen voting. She also has made the secretary of State's website more useful to voters seeking information about candidates and ballot measures.
Those accomplishments reflect Bowen's technological sophistication. Other tech-oriented efforts, however, haven't turned out as well. The VoteCal project to enable online voter registration statewide was temporarily derailed by a delinquent contractor, although some counties have moved ahead with their own Web-based systems. And a major initiative to speed the handling of business documents has been stymied by a shortage of programmers.
Dunn, a commercial real estate developer in Orange County, says he has the expertise needed to do a better job managing such large projects. In addition to increasing voter registration and reducing fraud, Dunn says he would focus on bringing more jobs to California. In particular, he wants to use data collected by the secretary of State to gain insights into why businesses are leaving, then help lead efforts to make the state more attractive to them.
Dunn's career trajectory is impressive. After a hardscrabble childhood, he earned a bachelor's degree from Stanford and played for four NFL teams before jumping into real estate, and he's smart and charismatic. However, he seems to be running for the wrong office. The governor, not the secretary of State, is the state's main cheerleader and corporate recruiter. Besides, his failure to vote until 2009 makes him an odd choice to be the state's top elections officer.
Bowen has laid out a better set of priorities than Dunn and is focused on improving the service her office provides to new businesses, voters and other constituencies. Her experience and tech bona fides make her the more qualified candidate, and voters should give her a second term.