California's next secretary of state will take over an office that has been stuck in neutral. Key projects that would make it easier to cast a ballot or track political campaign disclosures have been delayed, and there's been little urgency or advocacy from the outgoing incumbent, Debra Bowen, on how to better educate and engage voters, who are increasingly opting out of their civic duty.
The secretary of state, who is in effect the state's chief elections officer, should be more than a caretaker of the status quo. The job requires vision and a determination to make California a leader in voter turnout and technology, political transparency and civic engagement. Of the candidates running, Pete Peterson is the best choice for the post. He has innovative yet practical ideas to register voters, make ballot information more accessible and help make election day more convenient for busy Californians. He also brings a welcome focus on making the state's business registration system, which still relies on paper filings, more user-friendly. And he possesses an almost evangelical passion for public participation in the government, which is exactly what the office needs.
As a Republican, Peterson faces an uphill battle in a state that has not elected a member of the GOP to statewide office since 2006. But Californians should look beyond party affiliation in this race. Peterson views the job as nonpartisan, and his resume backs that up. As executive director of Pepperdine University's Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, he's spent the last several years training government officials on how to use technology to communicate with the public and how to get citizens to participate in civic decision-making. The secretary of state's office, which has a website straight out of the 1990s, could use his expertise.
His opponent, state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), is a smart and respected legislator. As part of his campaign, he has met with most county election officers around the state, which is important because the locals actually run most elections while the secretary of state oversees state and federal elections. One of the criticisms of Bowen, who is termed out, is that she hasn't worked well with county officials and has missed opportunities to develop voter registration campaigns and try out new voting equipment. We have concerns, however, that Padilla views the job merely as a steppingstone to higher office.
California needs a chief elections officer who is fully committed to the difficult work of modernizing the state's election system, creating transparent political campaigns and advocating for the needs of voters. Peterson should be the next secretary of state.