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E-Vote Fight Has Plenty of Human Drama Too

Times Staff Writer

By taking a tough stance on questions about electronic voting, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley has gained a national profile -- and made some enemies among local election officials along the way.

Shelley, who halted electronic voting in California in April and ordered counties to comply with a long list of improvements, said in an interview Monday that he was disappointed by the personal nature of some of the criticism. But some county registrars, who contend he’s jeopardizing their ability to run a smooth and accurate election in November, say Shelley deserves the blame.

“California was considered a good example of cooperation between local elections officials and the secretary of state up until January 2003,” when Shelley took office, said John Tuteur, registrar of voters in Napa County. “The deterioration of the relationship of the local election community and the secretary of state’s office is solely due to the actions and even personality of the secretary of state.”

On the most public level, Shelley is at odds with many local election officials over his decision to ban electronic voting systems in four counties and require extensive modifications in 10 others, a decision that many said would force them to return to paper ballots for the November election.

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Four of the 14 counties affected -- Riverside, Kern, Plumas and San Bernardino -- responded by filing a federal lawsuit. A hearing on that suit is set for July 2 in Los Angeles.

But many registrars say the problem is broader than that. They say Shelley makes little effort to consult them on key issues, including how to spend millions of dollars the state received from Washington to improve voting systems. And some registrars, accustomed to being treated as colleagues by the secretary of state, say they are offended by his personal style.

“We reel from one directive to the next. We’re not being consulted or involved in a process that requires teamwork to be successful,” said L.A. County Registrar of Voters Conny B. McCormack. “I don’t understand this. There’s no part of this that makes any sense to me.”

Shelley insists his only goal is to make sure that California’s elections run smoothly in November -- even if that means weathering some criticism along the way. He said he had aggressively policed the state’s electronic voting systems because “I didn’t want my reputation to be the Katherine Harris of the West,” referring to the 2000 presidential election chaos in Florida.

He said he regularly has sought suggestions from local registrars and hopes to resolve the dispute about the future of electronic voting outside the courtroom.

“It was disappointing many of the lawsuits were filed prior to us having an opportunity to work things out. It was something of a rush to judgment,” Shelley said. “My job is not to please everybody. My job is to see that we have an election that is free from doubt.”

Toward that end, Shelley on Monday granted Merced County the right to use its electronic voting machines in November after officials there met his requirements. It is the first county to regain certification. He said other counties, including Orange and Santa Clara, are also close to winning his approval.

Shelley supporters say the registrars who are unhappy are not used to a statewide elections chief who stands up to them.

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“I think they’re all in a state of shock,” said Yolo County Registrar of Voters Freddie Oakley. “They never expected to have to submit to authority in the way they’re asked to now.”

Indeed, local election officials in California have long viewed the secretary of state as a partner and an advocate in the state capital. It didn’t take them long to realize things would be different with Shelley.

After less than a year in office, Shelley, a former San Francisco County supervisor and assemblyman whose temper is legendary in Sacramento, rejected the suggestions of several registrars and said he would require all electronic voting systems to produce paper receipts for voters to review by 2006.

That decision took local registrars by surprise and came even though counties had spent more than $100 million on voting machines that were not yet able to produce the receipts. The state Senate passed a bill 32 to 0 last month that would set the same requirement even earlier: by 2005.

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Registrars say they take issue with Shelley as much for his decision-making as for his demeanor. They say he has shouted at them on the telephone and threatened legal action against one of them -- Butte County registrar Candace Grubbs -- who criticized him in her local paper.

In February, in a profanity-laced meeting in his Sacramento office, Shelley told officers in the state registrars association that he was calling the shots and they were his subordinates, McCormack said.

Witnesses said Contra Costa County Registrar of Voters Steve Weir interrupted the meeting because he was offended by Shelley’s language. “Mr. Secretary, we’re not used to being in a meeting where this type of language is used,” he said.

Shelley acknowledges that he has lost his cool in the past but said he didn’t swear at any of the registrars.

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“As someone rooted in San Francisco rough-and-tumble politics, I’m a colorful guy,” Shelley said. In the meeting, “I was very cordial. I never directed any inappropriate language toward any clerk. Didn’t then. Don’t now. Won’t ever.”

Still, McCormack said she was offended. So did Ann Reed, registrar of Shasta County.

“He’s always had this reputation,” McCormack said, “but it was so inappropriate -- especially since we all flew to Sacramento supposedly to patch up this relationship. We were listening and being respectful, and the outcome is he started using the F-word with us.”

Oakley, the Yolo County registrar, supports Shelley’s attempts to increase state regulation of electronic voting systems and laughed when told of McCormack’s concern.

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“That’s the way we talk to each other in the capital,” said Oakley, who has worked as a lobbyist in Sacramento. “If they’d have done their homework, they’d have known that’s how Kevin talks. He wasn’t an unknown quantity.”

Shelley is certainly known today. His decision on electronic voting propelled him to the national stage. When the national Elections Assistance Commission held its first meeting, Shelley was there to testify about California’s troubles; he’s also attracted attention from editorial pages around the country.

Shelley said the criticism occasionally affects him, perhaps more than it should. “It gets me down. I know how hard we’re working. I firmly believe we’re doing the right thing,” he said. “Criticism is always part of a political environment. I would suggest that it be productive and not personal.”

Shelley said his motivation is not politics but serving voters. Requiring a paper backup of all votes cast on electronic machines will add to voter confidence and provide an additional means of conducting recounts should the outcome of a race be questioned, he said.

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“My fundamental responsibility is to the voters. The voters have grave concerns about the integrity of the systems.... They want to know the equipment is reliable.”

Shelley has been lauded by voter rights groups, who see his pursuit of a paper backup for all electronic voting as essential.

“It’s not that Kevin Shelley is not listening to the registrars. It seems to me they’re upset he isn’t only listening to them,” said Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation.

“I think that some of the registrars that are opposing his reforms are in denial about the grave threat we face with our voting systems right now.... It’s like the sausage factory: A lot of people don’t want to look at the process; they just want the finished product.”

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