A Rare BRAD BLOG Endorsement and an Exclusive Election Eve Interview with the Woman Who Might Save American Democracy
By Brad Friedman on 6/5/2006, 1:40pm PT  

We don't generally do endorsements around here for the most part. In the case of California state Senator Debra Bowen's primary race to be the Democratic nominee for California's Secretary of State, however, we're more than happy to make an exception.

While many Californians --- and even more non-Californians --- may not know it, the path towards restoring America's crumbling democracy may well rest in a little noticed primary race that will take place here on Tuesday.

Bowen, as state senator and chair of the state's Election Committee in Sacramento, has led the way where few Democratic elected officials have even bothered to acquaint themselves. Specifically, Bowen has studied, learned, investigated, held hearings and delved deep into that murky territory of electronic voting, electoral integrity and the threat to our democracy posed by the privatization of our public electoral system by corporate interests using secret software to "count" America's votes.

As private and partisan corporations such as Diebold, ES&S, Sequoia, Hart InterCivic and all the rest have spidered out across the electoral landscape, usurping American values in the name of insidious corporate greed and at the expense of transparency, auditability and confidence in our once-great American democracy --- all at the cost and waste of billions of your taxpayer dollars, by the way --- few politicians have bothered to wend their way through the impossibly arcane and brain-withering technical details wherein the devil lies, most assuredly, in these matters of electronic voting.

An avowed computer geek, Bowen has been paying attention to these matters from the get-go while the vast majority of elected pols today do little more than whistle past democracy's graveyard. She has fought for electoral integrity by successfully moving legislation into law which mandates audits (only 1%, but hey, it's a start) and paper records (not paper ballots, but hey, it's a start) for every vote cast in the Golden State.

While one would think such ideas would be no-brainers for every state in the union, it's remarkable how few seem to give a damn about any of those ideas and, in fact, have gone out of their way to fight off mandates for such accountability in elections. Debra Bowen, on the other hand, does give a damn...

Add to that, her work over the years championing a number of landmark pieces of legislation resulting in unprecedented transparency for California's legislature to see it become the first in the world to post all official documents online. Real openness and transparency in Government. Imagine that. Thank you, Senator.

In the meantime, in California --- or as Diebold refers to it, "America's Largest Voting Market" --- Arnold Schwarzenegger's hand-appointed Secretary of State, Bruce McPherson, has stunned those of us who follow issues of electoral integrity time and again over the last several month by allowing one voting system after another, which are known to be dangerously hackable and infinitely unreliable (as revealed by McPherson's very own tests and independent commissions!) to nonetheless proliferate the state in advance of both his own, and his boss, The Governator's, first real elections looming this November.

With every Blackwellian and illegal certification and pronouncement by the either apparently-clueless or brilliantly-sinister McPherson, Bowen has banged the drum, made noise, held hearings and otherwise done more than just about any other state legislator --- possibly in the country --- to try and draw attention to what the hell is going on here.

On Tuesday, Bowen faces another Democratic state senator, Deborah Ortiz, for the Democratic nomination. Unlike Bowen, we know little about Ortiz personally. And, in the bargain, she apparently knows little about elections --- an exceedingly troubling shortcoming for a potential Secretary of State in 2006.

Perhaps that is why every newspaper endorsement in the race has gone for Bowen. And yet, the race is still said to be too close to call as the vast majority of voters have yet to decide between either of the candidates.

By all accounts, Ortiz is a smart and able legislator. Nonetheless, she has --- incredibly --- gone on the record to support McPherson's impossibly irresponsible certification of voting machines recognized by nearly all legitimate Computer Scientists and Security Experts to be hopelessly flawed and vulnerable to tampering on a massive 'national security risk' level.

Neither Ortiz nor McPherson, unfortunately, is the sort of official that anyone should want to be setting the standards for "America's largest voting market", as what happens in this state affects every other one quite directly.

Bowen has (only partly) joked that she's running for Secretary of State in California for two reasons: J. Kenneth Blackwell and Katherine Harris.

And if you don't understand that "joke" then you've been watching entirely too much Fox News (and CNN and MSNBC and ABC and NBC and CBS and...you get the picture.)

With 56% of Californian's still undecided in this "down ticket" race it's time to pull out all the stops to help see Bowen pass the first step of her challenge to unseat McPherson.

In an exclusive Election Eve interview with The BRAD BLOG, Bowen sat down with Jim Cirile to discuss what's at stake, what she's done, and a bit about what she hopes to do.

As she says in the interview below, "we're asking everyone who has an e-mail list to bother the people on their lists for this one limited purpose...to tell them that they know someone who's running for Secretary of State, and we need Debra Bowen to help restore our democracy."

That's America's democracy she'll be helping to restore. Not just California's.

Sounds good to us. Let's get busy.

If you need more inspiration, take these words from her website (www.DebraBowen.com) to heart and ask yourself how many other elected officials of late you've seen put such no-brainer phrases like this at the top their pages:

"There is an unprecedented crisis in confidence at both the national and state levels in the fair and independent conduct of elections. We must restore confidence, integrity, and independence in democratic government."

We agree. Let's get busy.

But first...Here's Jim's exclusive interview with Senator Bowen...


An Exclusive Election Day Eve Interview with Senator Debra Bowen
Special to The BRAD BLOG by Jim Cirile

BRAD BLOG: Where are we at in California right now?

SENATOR DEBRA BOWEN: A lot of people don't have confidence that their votes will be counted as have been cast. We will be using some touch-screen voting machines in California in June, but fewer than we might have. The lawsuit that was filed persuaded some counties from purchasing more electronic voting machines. But really, we're going to have to go back and deal with all of the security risks and the problems that have occurred in other states before we before we get ready to deploy the equipment in November.

BB: To many of us in the progressive community, the coming elections look like an impending train wreck.

DB: Well, it certainly has been a mess in other states. It has just been astonishing how many problems there have been with the electronic voting equipment. And the mainstream press, because it's state by state, we just don't see much in the way of reporting on the big picture--on how well this equipment works or doesn't. And really, we're the beta testers. But it's a live election.

BB: Assuming we are going to have all manner of fraud in this coming election, do you have any sort of plan to ensure that all the votes are counted fairly?

DB: Well, we have the paper trail, and that's a good thing. We also now have the requirement from the bill that I carried last year that the paper trail be used to audit the electronic voting machines. So that paper trail will become the definitive record. That's of enormous help. Obviously it's not enough. Very often that paper trail is thermal paper, and if you leave it in the car overnight, it can render it [useless.] But we have something which we can use to audit.

BB: Here in LA county we use Ink-A-Vote [an optical scan system using paper ballots], and it's great that we have those cards. But it's conceivable somebody could just take tubs full of those cards and just toss 'em away.

DB: That's been an issue throughout the history of voting in this country --- ballot box stuffing or losing ballots. I was very disconcerted to discover that we had ballot box tops floating around in San Francisco Bay after the election --- which makes you wonder where the ballot box bottoms were. But with electronic media, it's even easier. There are still memory cards missing from the Ohio primary. They're small enough to put in your pocket. At least with paper ballots, you have to carry a whole big box of ballots around someplace, and that's a whole lot harder to do than to carry a little thumb-sized drive that will fit on your key ring.

BB: In 2001, you helped pass a law that bans companies from using social security numbers as public identifiers and gives consumers the right to freeze access to their credit reports. But isn't that exactly what Choicepoint is doing right now --- mining this type of info to sell back to the Bush administration?

DB: We have a lot of issues about privacy concerns right now, about corporate information and how it finds its way into the government to do things that government would not be allowed to do directly --- of course, the monitoring of internet e-mail traffic as well as telephone records are prime examples. So we really need to engage on this question of what privacy means in the electronic age.

I've worked to preserve privacy for the last ten years, and I will continue to do so regardless of what office I hold. In a free society, personal information ought to be private, and government information ought to be public. We have moved away in the current presidential administration from both of them. This monitoring of telephone company records is a very great concern to many people.

Ultimately it's the same kind of problem that gives people pause about the voting machines. It's not transparent. You cannot tell what's happening. We're in a position where the government says, "trust us." We've always wanted to follow Ronald Reagan's advice --- trust yet verify.

BB: Your campaign is a great example of a real grassroots effort, showing how successful it can be. Can you tell us where we are at in California with regard to campaign finance reform?

DB: I started worked on campaign finance reform issues in 1993, my first year in office. It took five or six years before we got anything. What we have now is the law that restricts contributions in the governor's race to $22,000-something per person in the general and the primary, which still puts small donors at an enormous disadvantage. We need to go further and go to a public financing system. We still have difficult questions to deal with --- the independent expenditures where anyone with deep pockets can come in at the last minute and make outrageous contributions. But we are not doing well with all of this money floating around. I think it makes people choose not to vote. They think their vote doesn't matter because it's all a matter of money anyway. We have to change not only that perception but the reality.

We have models in Arizona and Maine where public financing works very well. It actually connects [candidates] back to real voters again. You're prohibited under those models from fundraising after you qualify.

BB: With secretaries of state like [California's Bruce] McPherson who seem to be trying to ensure that the people's will is not heard, it's no wonder people feel that way.

DB: It has to be changed.

BB: You've racked up some impressive endorsements --- N.O.W., the California Democratic Party, the National Women's Political Caucus and every major California newspaper. It seems clear that people are hearing your message.

DB: Well, there are an enormous number of voters who are still undecided --- 56% according to the most recent field poll. We're asking everyone who has an e-mail list to bother the people on their lists for this one limited purpose, and that is to tell them that they know someone who's running for Secretary of State, and we need Debra Bowen to help restore our democracy. We've used a lot of non-traditional methods, and e-mail has been just fabulous. But we still have a lot of voters up for grabs.

BB: Just today I got your 5-point plan for cleaning up California elections in my e-mail. [They are: 1) requiring every vote to have a paper trail, 2) fix the voter registration system to ensure every eligible voter is on the rolls, 3) reform the initiative and proposition process to avoid future costly special elections like last years', 4) improve access to information on campaign contributors so citizens can follow the money, and 5) improve the election process by reducing long lines and equipment failures at the polls.] It's common sense. How could anybody possibly protest something like this?

DB: Much of what I'm after, the principles are so common sense that it's hard to imagine they wouldn't be acceptable to all. The idea that we register every voter and count every vote, who can disagree with that? But it's really how you go about doing those things. We had a lot of voters under the current Secretary of State who, in agreement with the Bush administration, would not be eligible to vote this year were it not for activists joining with me in pressuring him to change that. And we know we have issues with voting machines and with security. When Diebold itself says, "We have a major security hole," we have a problem.

BB: Many of us in the progressive community feel that HAVA (the "Help America Vote Act") represents a hostile takeover of our election systems nationwide. As Secretary of State of California, is there anything that you might be able to do to shine a spotlight on how HAVA is being abused, not just in California but nationwide?

DB: I think that's begun to happen, and even at the campaign stage, I have begun to work with candidates for secretary of state in other states. If a few of us who are committed to clean and fair elections are elected, we will have a powerful platform for broadcasting this message of the need for changing the way we handle voting nationally.

BB: Senator, thanks so much for your time. Is there anything else you'd like to say to our readers?

DB: What people need to know is I have been interested in these issues about how technology changes democracy and requires changes in our laws for a very long time, since 1993 when I carried the bill to put the legislature online, which had never been done anywhere not only in the country but in the world.

You need someone who has had hands-on experience working with big computer systems. Otherwise you have to rely on people who will tell you things that are not necessarily so. I think it's very important for this office, at this time in our history, to elect someone who actually understands the technology and who can sort through what's true and what's hype.

As the San Francisco Chronicle says, my goal is to "secure the vote." It's a fundamental part of our democracy.