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Technology failures prompt criticism of secretary of state

Courtesy of the secretary of state's officeCalifornia Secretary of State Debra Bowen

The latest technology snafus to hit Secretary of State Debra Bowen's office have added to growing frustration from registrars and watchdog groups, who say Bowen has been unresponsive to their concerns.

The server crash that brought down California’s campaign finance disclosure database for more than two weeks now also has incapacitated the state system for validating new voter registrations.

This, on top of a years-long delay in creating a new voter registration database, as well as other elections issues, has ratcheted up the criticism directed at Bowen, who's in her second term.

"Sometimes, I feel like we’re having to knock really hard on the door and scream that we’re out here and need time and attention and guidance and leadership," said Gail Pellerin, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. "It’s been really hard to get a seat at the table."

Bowen acknowledged the latest technology problems have been "extremely frustrating," but said she has always worked closely with county officials and advocates to formulate policy and fix problems.

"Obviously, there’s always room to improve, but I’m a little puzzled because I’ve made it a priority to serve the needs of elections officials," Bowen said. "I want to make sure the registrars know how supportive I am, because they’re the ones who are doing the heavy lifting."

The server that runs the Cal-Access database, which lets the public view campaign contribution and lobbying records, crashed Nov. 30. The CalVoter registration system, which helps verify the identities of those registering to vote, went down with it.

Pellerin, who is Santa Cruz County's registrar of voters, said the crash is causing an unwieldy backlog. For Sacramento County Registrar Jill LaVine, it was getting in the way of tallying signatures for ballot initiative campaigns because some petition signers needed their voter registration applications validated in order to count.

Bowen's staff is processing the validation requests manually, and there should be no more than an hour or two of delay, said spokeswoman Nicole Winger.

"We have gone to such great lengths to make sure that this doesn’t impact them at all," Winger said.

CalVoter and Cal-Access should be working again sometime in the next two weeks, she said.

Derek Cressman, Common Cause's Western states regional director, is calling for legislative oversight hearings on the secretary of state's technology operations.

"We've just seen too many problems," Cressman said. "The public needs to get to the bottom of what’s really going on."

Bowen, who was elected secretary of state in 2006 and re-elected in 2010, said her staff has been working hard to transition from the "ancient" hardware and software systems she inherited.

"It’s what’s been keeping IT staff up at night," Bowen said.

But Bowen said a full upgrade to Cal-Access would cost millions of dollars that the state doesn't have. She pointed to cuts to education and support for the elderly and those with disabilities.

"It’s pretty tough to argue that those functions are less important than a brand-new, shiny Cal-Access, which I would love to have," she said. "I don’t want to lose credibility on things that I need by asking for things where the timing just isn't right."

California has access to federal funding to create a new statewide voter registration database, but that process has been marred by years of delays. Bowen's office fired the contractor on that project last year and is still working to find a new one. The system isn't expected to be in place until 2015. Bowen blames the problems on the state's procurement process.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, draws a connection between the various technological setbacks.

"Technology projects have appeared to have stalled out in the secretary of state's office," Alexander said. "The situation cries out for leadership."

Alexander helped write a study by the Pew Center on the States that gave low marks to California for its lack of online lookup tools for voters. Alexander said she and several other organizations recently tried to meet with Bowen to discuss a proposal for an online tool allowing voters to find out if and where they are registered. The meeting request was denied, she said. 

"It’s very discouraging," Alexander said.

Bowen said 24 out of California's 58 counties, representing about 80 percent of the population, already provide a registration lookup tool, and "there's just no reason to duplicate that effort."

"It was my judgment that with extremely limited resources that we should focus on the longer-term solutions with online voter registration," Bowen said.

Pellerin, president of the state association of clerks and registrars, listed a slew of other issues for which county registrars want more support from Bowen. Pellerin said that with previous secretaries of state, "there’s been better communication and access and maybe better respect for the work of elections officials." 

With Bowen, Pellerin said, "there were times that I got the sense that we weren’t on the same team."

Bowen said she wouldn't "lose any sleep" over the criticism but would work harder to collaborate with county officials.

"If I have people who aren’t happy, who I respect and think are extremely important to the health of democracy," Bowen said, "I’m going to do whatever I can to support their efforts."

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