Debra Bowen won election as California's secretary of state four years ago promising to turn the low-profile office into a more tech-savvy and efficient operation and to fix security flaws in the state's electronic balloting systems.
She garnered national acclaim for protecting the integrity of state voting, but the state's budget crisis, bureaucratic inertia and missteps by her office have stymied other initiatives.
The time it takes her office to process business filings has more than tripled, to an average of 58 business days. A project to allow online voter registration is four years behind schedule. And open-government advocates are grumbling ever louder that California's campaign finance reporting database, run by Bowen, is antiquated and unwieldy.
Now, the Democrat from Marina del Rey is running for reelection and her main challenger, Republican businessman and former professional football player Damon Dunn, has repeatedly tossed the yellow flag over what he sees as Bowen's miscues.
Although Dunn has raised more campaign cash than Bowen, it will be a challenge to unseat the incumbent in a state where Democrats have a 13-percentage-point edge in voter registration.
"She's been in office too long," Dunn said of Bowen's 18 years as an elected official, including 14 in the Legislature. "Once I reach people, my message will transcend party lines."
In addition to supervising voting, which includes enforcing election laws and printing ballot pamphlets, the secretary of state's office receives and electronically posts financial reports showing contributions to and spending by political campaigns. The office also handles the registration of corporations and is custodian of the state archives.
Bowen, a 54-year-old attorney, served in the state Senate and Assembly before her 2006 election as secretary of state, a job with an annual salary of $130,490.
Others running for the office this year are aviator Merton D. Short of the American Independent Party, civil rights attorney Ann Menasche of the Green Party, voting rights advocate Christina Tobin of the Libertarian Party and community volunteer Marylou Cabral of the Peace and Freedom Party.
The strongest challenge has come from Dunn, a 34-year-old real-estate investor who graduated from Stanford before playing wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns.
Dunn has raised $903,000 so far, eclipsing the $589,000 brought in by Bowen. The Republican's financial supporters include billionaire Jerry Perenchio, former owner of the Univision television network, and former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
Organized labor is among Bowen's biggest contributors. Those who have given her the maximum $12,900 donation include the California Professional Firefighters and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Bowen has criticized Dunn for not registering to vote until 2009. "At the end of the day it was a mistake," Dunn said in an interview. "I corrected it, and it's not going to happen again."
Ballot security was a primary goal for Bowen when she ran for office four years ago. After the Florida paper-ballot debacle, California counties spent $450 million to replace paper balloting with electronic voting systems, many of which involved touch-screens.
But Bowen was concerned that the systems had flaws that could lead to inaccurate vote counts or to hacking and manipulation by outsiders. One of her first acts was to order a review of the electronic systems, after which she restricted the use of direct-recording electronic voting machines.
"California's election process is more secure and transparent than it was four years ago," Bowen said in an interview.
The restrictions were resisted by some voting-system companies and county election officials. But when Bowen won the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2008, it cited "her bold leadership and her steadfast resolve to protect the integrity of the vote."
Bowen had less success in another top goal, which she recently told Silicon Valley leaders was to "bring an office that deals primarily with records into the 21st century using information technology."
Before her election, the secretary of state's office was processing business filings such as articles of incorporation in 20 business days, and statements of information, such as where a firm is doing business, were processed in 10, her office said. Last week, it was taking 44 business days to process business filings and 71 days for statements of information.
Bowen has said that improving the business licensing process is a priority, but Dunn said she has failed in that.
Bowen blames a 25% budget cut by the Legislature and governor in the last two years for the longer processing times, because she has had to close some field offices and there are fewer workers and less money available for overtime.
But she said the budget recently signed by the governor includes money to speed up the processing rate by boosting the staff.
Another Bowen project aims to allow Californians to register to vote entirely online, but the project has stalled and voters may not have access to paperless registration for four more years, her office says.
Dunn said she bungled the project, not providing clear guidance to a contractor. Bowen defended her handling of the project, including her decision to fire the main contractor for not keeping the project on schedule, saying the state has to move carefully so the system works properly.
She has had mixed success in improving Cal-Access, a database and website that allows Californians to see how much money political candidates are raising and spending and who is contributing it.
In Bowen's first year in office, 2007, a study by the California Voter Foundation gave the state's financial disclosure system an overall B+ grade, but a C- on ease of use and helpfulness to the public. A year later, the overall grade was an A and the usability grade improved to a B+, according to Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan foundation.
"California relative to other states did perform very well overall," Alexander said. But, she added, "There are a lot of problems with Cal-Access."
The system lacks some user-friendly features available on other websites, including the ability to call up on a single page summaries showing spending of all candidates in specific races, according to Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.
He said the state's budget woes and Bowen's distraction with online registration problems have kept her from putting enough money and attention into Cal-Access to make it state-of-the-art.
"The electronic filing system for campaign statements is about 10 years old and woefully antiquated," Stern said in an e-mail. "It needs to modernize."
Bowen agreed, saying, "I'd love to be able to replace it and get something easier to use." But she said overhauling other computer systems is the priority now.