Republican Pete Peterson sparred verbally with Democrat Alex Padilla on Thursday as the two candidates for California secretary of state outlined their plans for improving voter participation in elections and upgrading the office's antiquated business registration system.
Voters will decide the contest in the Nov. 4 election.
The first face-to-face meeting of the candidates since the primary saw general agreement that too few Californians are voting and it is too hard for businesses to register and operate in California, but the candidates differed over who was best qualified to fix the problems.
The forum was hosted at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento by the Public Policy Institute of California, a non-partisan think tank. The group's president, Mark Baldassare, was moderator and asked each candidate how they would address the historically low voter turnout experienced in the June primary.
Padilla, 41, cited his 15 years of experience in public office, first on the Los Angeles City Council and the last eight years as a state senator from Pacoima. He cited legislation he supported that would allow for election-day registration when the voting database is modernized, and consideration of absentee ballots postmarked on election day, not just received on that day.
He said he was inspired in part to run for the chief elections office by his concern about attempts around the country to infringe on voting rights by purging voter rolls and requiring ID at the polls.
"Protecting voting rights is absolutely going to be a priority of mine," Padilla said, adding that such rights "are under attack in America."
Peterson is the executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, a think tank at Pepperdine University. He said he is the "outsider" with technological experience in the race, and he criticized Padilla for having a lot of support from the "third house," lobbyists and special interest PACs.
Peterson proposed that the secretary of state spend more time marketing participation in the electoral process, in part by improving technology so voters can go to a website to get better information on candidates and issues, including videos. "One of the areas where we are failing most desperately at is in the use of technology to inform voters," he said.
Peterson, a 47-year-old Santa Monica resident, said his goal would be to increase voter turnout by as much as 10% in his first term. Padilla said he wants to add 1 million more Californians as active, registered voters.
The forum was held a few days after Secretary of State Debra Bowen disclosed that she has been suffering from a debilitating bout of depression that has her working many days from home. Bowen is prevented by term limits from running for re-election.
While neither candidate mentioned Bowen's illness, both were highly critical of her office during her tenure for the slow move to modern technology and innovation.
Both candidates criticized the Cal-Access computer database operated by the secretary of state, which provides the public with information on campaign contributions and spending, but which has occasionally crashed and is not easy to use.
"It's not fast and it's certainly not user friendly," Padilla said. "It's long overdue for an upgrade."
Peterson said he would not be issuing requests for proposals to buy a major technology project to upgrade Cal-Access but instead would seek to use systems already being developed by nonpartisan groups including Maplight. "The role of the secretary of state should be as a provider of data," he said.
Neither candidate said the state is ready to have elections through the Internet, but both support giving people a chance to vote in the days leading up to an election, including on weekends.
Padilla said the system should not limit voters to casting ballots at one site near their home. "Maybe it's more convenient to vote where I work, or where I drop my kids off," Padilla said.
Peterson supports a move to balloting with electronic machines and one of his goals is to improve the state's standing in a Pew Charitable Trusts review of state election systems from 49th in the nation to at least 35th.
Peterson said the secretary of state's office has to improve the speed with which it processes business registrations and use updated technology, moving away from faxes and paper. He also said he would survey those who start businesses and those who end them to get an idea of what the state can do to improve the business climate.
"We should be exit interviewing businesses," Peterson said.