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Secretary of state candidates make their case at L.A. forum

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From dysfunctional technology to disaffected voters, California's next top elections official is going to have his or her hands full.

But all of the six men who have filed paperwork to run for secretary of state so far said at a candidates forum this week that they could solve those problems and more.

The event, co-hosted by the ACLU of Southern California, the League of Women Voters of California and the California Endowment, was the first of four such sessions planned around the state. The sponsors' goal is to draw more attention to the relatively low-profile office and the challenges it faces, including the need to modernize voter records and technology and improve registration and turnout.

The deadline to become a candidate is Friday.

Just 65.6% of Californians eligible to vote were registered in 2012, according to U.S. Census data. Voter turnout in the last presidential elections was just 57.5% of those registered, putting California in 43rd place among the 50 states for voter participation.

The six candidates vying to replace termed-out Secretary of State Debra Bowen said they wanted to improve those numbers, but they proposed somewhat different routes for getting there.

Democratic state Sens. Alex Padilla of Pacoima and Leland Yee of San Francisco, both from immigrant backgrounds, talked about such participation barriers as language and cultural factors, and the legislation they have worked on to smooth California's voting systems.

Padilla said his degree in engineering could help him improve the state's lagging system of tracking campaign donations and meet its goal of completing an online database of voters.

"Our democracy works best when the maximum number of people participate," Padilla said.

Yee said he was impressed by all his fellow candidates but said voters should judge them on their records.

"That's the best assessment you can make," Yee said after outlining the legislation he has played a leading role in passing.

Derek Cressman, a Democrat and former Common Cause executive, and Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist turned nonpartisan candidate, both said the influence of special-interest money in elections and government must be curbed.

Voters "are disillusioned with the role of big money in politics," Cressman said, while also calling for ways to improve access to balloting, such as expanding opportunities for people to vote before election day.

Schnur, a former chief of the state Fair Political Practices Commission and now an educator at USC, said breaking "the link between political giving and government action" is crucial to getting voters to "believe their voices matter." He wants to ban fundraising while the Legislature is in session.

Architectural designer David S. Curtis, a Green Party member, said the state's new voter-approved primary system represents a step backward in voter engagement because it allows only the top-two primary finishers to advance to the fall ballot.

"There needs to be more choices" among general election candidates, Curtis said. Like Schnur — the only independent in the race — Curtis said the secretary of state's office should be nonpartisan.

Pete Peterson, the only Republican in the contest, hammered on the office's poor technology as a barrier to improving participation. He runs the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement at Pepperdine University.

Peterson said he is the "only candidate who has trained government officials how to use technology" to improve turnout. "You have to be a marketer and a promoter" to attract voters, he said.

Schnur injected a bit of drama into an otherwise low-key, controversy-free forum by twice calling for the expulsion of two state senators currently on paid leave and challenging rival candidates to do the same.

Sen. Roderick D. Wright (D-Inglewood) is awaiting sentencing on eight counts of perjury and voter fraud for lying about where he lived when he ran for office. Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) has been indicted on federal bribery, money laundering and other charges but not convicted of any crimes. He has pleaded not guilty.

"Both are getting a paid vacation," as well as adding to voters' disillusionment, Schnur said. The other candidates ignored him on that point.

In a nod to L.A.'s signature industry, the moderator urged the candidates to think of the brief time allotted them for opening remarks as "a 90-second movie pitch." They obliged, with some going so far as to name their "movies" after famous ones. Schnur picked "Rocky." Padilla went with "La Bamba," "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Stand and Deliver."

Telemundo52 journalist Azalea Iniguez moderated the forum, held Monday night at the California Endowment's headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. The event will be aired on the city of Los Angeles' cable Channel 36.

jean.merl@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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