Opinion Columns & Blogs

Debra Bowen: 2008's successes, lessons

It was a truly remarkable electoral year in California and voters were the winners in the three statewide elections conducted in 2008.

A record 17.3 million Californians registered to vote for the November election. Of those, more than 13.7 million voted. That, too, was a new record, and 79.4 percent of registered voters actually cast ballots, marking the highest percentage turnout since 1976.

Of course, we couldn't have done it without the dedication of the state's largest one-day volunteer work force: the 100,000 men and women who serve California as poll workers.

The get-out-the-vote efforts of county elections officials and countless volunteers also made the day a success.

The 2008 elections were the first following my 2007 top-to-bottom review of voting systems.

That unprecedented review uncovered major security flaws that led me to strictly limit the use of touch-screen voting machines in California and require new post-election audits in extremely close races.

While California helped blaze the trail in testing voting machines, it was not alone: Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Ohio all limited the use of electronic voting machines due to concerns about their security and accuracy.

Initially, my heightened standards encountered some resistance, but they spared California any of the serious voting-machine glitches that emerged in other states.

This year, nearly all Californians voted on paper ballots counted by optical-scanning machines. I'm pleased county elections officials proved the naysayers wrong by tallying those ballots both quickly and accurately, even amid record turnout.

In an effort to make our electoral process more transparent and improve people's confidence in the results, this year I also required county elections officials to automatically audit the ballots from at least 10 percent of precincts in any contest where the margin of victory was less than 0.5 percent.

This enhanced auditing was triggered in one Congressional contest and one State Senate race. It also was used in 95 local contests, such as school boards and water districts.

While the auditing went smoothly everywhere it was applied, I plan to work with statisticians, county election officials and election integrity experts to fine-tune the auditing procedures in coming months.

That's one of the great rewards of being Secretary of State -- every election gives me the opportunity to learn from the voters' experiences and keep improving California's democracy. Certainly, the trio of 2008 elections showed us a number of things.

The Legislature and the governor moved the presidential primary from June to February to give California voters a stronger voice in the presidential nomination process.

While the move may have succeeded on that front, it unintentionally orphaned the legislative primaries in June, when only 28.2 percent of registered voters participated. That's why I support reunifying the primaries before the next presidential election in 2012.

The primaries also highlighted the confusion faced by the growing ranks of California voters who decline to affiliate with a political party.

Some mistakenly believe that to be politically "independent," they should register with the American Independent Party rather than registering as decline-to-state (DTS) voters. As some nonpartisans discovered when they went to vote, doing so kept them from voting in any other party's "open" primary.

I eliminated some of this confusion by redesigning the voter registration card this year, but there is more we can do. I plan to push legislation this year that will make voter registration even more intuitive for California's more than 3.4 million DTS voters.

California's vote-by-mail (VBM) laws -- meant to make it easier for people to cast ballots -- proved problematic for some in November. State law allows people to apply for mail-in ballots as late as seven days before an election.

But, when voter interest is as high as it was this fall, a week isn't enough time for all VBM voters to receive their ballots, mark them and send them back before the 8 p.m. Election Day deadline. The late application deadline wound up hurting some voters it was intended to help.

I will work with the Legislature this year on common-sense reforms of elections laws that will help the millions of Californians who prefer voting by mail.

I will continue breaking down barriers to participation everywhere possible to improve elections for all Californians.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen is California's chief elections officer. Previously, she served in the state Legislature for 14 years from Los Angeles County.