California is about to hire a new secretary of state. If former state Sen. Bruce McPherson is confirmed by the Legislature, which seems likely, he will have to decide whether to continue reforms to California's election practices begun by his predecessor, Kevin Shelley.
His decisions will be crucial to the future of California's elections.
Just because Shelley's administration imploded in a cloud of controversy does not mean all its programs were flawed. For instance, Shelley cracked down on the revolving door between the voting equipment industry and government, stopping his staff from working for those they had regulated.
Shelley mandated a voter-verified paper trail for all election equipment, so each voter could confirm their vote via a paper receipt like you receive from an ATM machine. He initiated random field testing on Election Day to ensure proper performance of individual voting machines.
But his biggest reform was revamping a regulatory regime that previously had been characterized by lax standards, arbitrary enforcement and a troubling lack of oversight of local election officials.
The secretary of state's office oversees a little-known appointed body called the Voting Systems and Procedures Panel. This VSPP is charged with managing the certification of voting equipment, not only software and hardware but also detailed election administration procedures, including testing of the equipment and procedures. They are supposed to ensure that election equipment functions accurately and securely.
In past years, the certification process was arbitrarily applied and lacked consistent standards. This fostered a lax atmosphere that signaled to companies like Diebold that they could insert software into their computerized touchscreen equipment that had never gone through proper testing.
When Diebold was caught doing this by the Shelley administration, the company responded that it was just a software upgrade. While perhaps true, it was still unsettling, and, as Shelley alleged, possibly illegal. In Los Angeles County, election officials developed their own voting equipment, the InkaVote, whose components have never been tested by federal authorities. A statewide audit revealed similar problems in many other counties.
Shelley attempted to crack down on these practices. But he met with a great deal of resistance, not only from companies such as Diebold but also from county election chiefs. The latter, led by their lobbying arm the California Association of Clerks and Elected Officials (CACEO), even threatened to sue Shelley over some of his mandates. One county elections chief was quoted saying, "We don't need any cowboys" from the secretary's office interfering in elections. Others protested, "But this is how we've always done things.
Election officials deserve great sympathy, as they have a tough job. And certainly there are outstanding election officials in California. But there also are too many who regard state oversight as an invasion of their fiefdom.
Now county election officials have mounted their latest lobbying effort -- to overturn Shelley's mandate for a voter-verified paper trail. There is something troubling about county election officials having a lobbying agenda focused on elections policy rather than operations efficiency. They are supposed to implement the laws, not decide which ones to ignore.
The words "special interest" have been overused lately, but election officials in California have become one. And that's not how it's supposed to be.
As secretary of state, Bruce McPherson should press forward with an agenda that safeguards the security and integrity of our elections. He should:
- Continue to crack down on the revolving door between the industry and regulators.
- Continue requiring a voter-verified paper trail for voting equipment.
- Run his own office as nonpartisan as possible.
- Continue oversight of local election officials.
- Forbid local election officials from lobbying for changes to elections policy.
- Make sure that the Voting Systems and Procedures Panel continues to have qualified appointees and staff and adequate resources.
Finally, McPherson should make his office a vehicle for reconnecting voters to their elected representatives. He should explore ways to increase voter turnout and make elections competitive; strengthen voter registration laws that will lead to cleaner and more complete voter rolls; ensure that all voting equipment in California can handle innovative methods like ranked ballots used with instant runoff voting; and reform our broken political primary system. He should engage the public by establishing a citizens' task force that holds statewide hearings about these issues.
Confidence in our elections is a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy.
The incoming secretary of state should continue modernizing our elections practices, no matter how unpopular it might be with the elections industry and some local election officials.
Copyright 2005, Sacramento Bee