Pete Peterson, the Republican candidate for California secretary of state, doesn’t know if he will win come Election Day but he knows he should, he said in a one-on-one interview Monday with The Collegian.
Facing off against state Sen. Alex Padilla (D) for the office, commonly described as the state’s chief elections officer, he faces an uphill battle in a state where Democrats lead Republicans in voter registration by more than 15 percent.
It’s no secret that California elections haven’t gone Republicans’ way in recent years. The party hasn’t won a statewide office since 2006. However, Peterson, who bills himself as the most apolitical politician running, is looking to change that.
Peterson, who currently is the executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University, has received the endorsements of editorial boards from the San Francisco Chronicle to the LA Times and the Fresno Bee.
The following are excerpts from The Collegian’s interview with Peterson:
The Collegian: What’s the No. 1 thing you think California needs to change with its voting laws?
Peterson: Well not so much in the laws, which are not in the jurisdiction of the secretary of state, but I would say that my top priority is moving from a county-by-county voter roll system into a statewide system…
Q: This area, specifically Fresno, Madera and Tulare counties, have very low voter turnout historically. How do you plan on targeting communities within the Central Valley?
A: Well there are a couple things. One is: there has been a decreasing amount of the amount of money that has come out of Sacramento for the county registrars, and as I get around the state and speak with county registrars all over the state one of the things that they always tell me is that we’ve been essentially defunded by Sacramento over the last several years.
One of the jobs of secretary of state is to really fight for full funding of our county registrars. But, we also need to support them in other ways. Number 1: we really need to use better technology in helping not only to inform voters, but to make sure that they’re better engaged.
California’s actually one of the bottom five states in terms of using technology to inform voters. Things like finding out where your nearest polling place is on your hand-held device, other states do that.
Q: And how do you feel you’d contrast with the current secretary of state, Debra Bowen?
A: Well I think the most notable contrast is that nobody like me has ever run for this office. Usually this has been an office that somebody terming out of the state legislature has run for, and usually without much of a background in the field of civic participation.
For the last eight years, first as the head of a bipartisan nonprofit and now for the last four-and-a-half years at Pepperdine, all of my professional work has been about trying to increase informed civic engagement around the state. So I definitely bring that background to it.
I also bring a background in technology. I have worked with cities in making sure their budgets are more transparent using technologies. I’ve also worked with cities in using what’s called “Gov 2.0” platforms to make sure that voters are better engaged.
So I do bring a kind of unique background, not only in civic engagement to it, but also in bringing technology to the office.
Q: It’s been a hard time for Republicans running for statewide office. There hasn’t been a Republican elected to statewide office since 2006, so what makes you think you’ll buck this trend?
A: Well I guess the best way I can answer that question is: I never ran for office knowing that I would win; I ran for this office knowing that I should win…
Q: The LA Times has endorsed two Republican candidates, you being one and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin [running for state controller] being the other. Why do you think they singled you two out?
A: Well, I think you’re also raising the broader point about how well both of us have done with editorial boards. I also earned the endorsement of the San Francisco Chronicle, and actually both Ashley and I earned the endorsements of nine of the top ten newspapers in the state.
Now, for me, if you look at all the endorsements there’s two main themes that are in agreement between all those ed boards.
One: they understand how poorly the office has been run. I mean, California was actually ranked by a nonpartisan institute as 49th out of 50 states on how we conduct elections. So there are a lot of issues around the performance of that office.
Secondly, they see me as being uniquely qualified. As I said, nobody like me has ever run for this office. I do have this unique background in civic participation and technology. And, I also have a nonpolitical background. And I think to run our elections system you should really have a nonpartisan record. And I bring that uniquely to this office.
Q: Ashley Swearengin has gotten flack for not endorsing Republicans like Neil Kashkari for governor. But she has endorsed you. Why do you think that is?
A: … I believe she’s done a tremendous job here for the City of Fresno, and I think she is a tremendous candidate especially for this office…
And like me, I think there is something to this year, being an outsider with experience…
Q: California is one of the most heavily Latino states, yet Latinos tend to have some of the worst voter turnout of any group in California. How do you plan on targeting and improving that?
A: Well, in part, it’s really from my experience at Pepperdine. The work I do there heading up theDavenport Institute for Public Engagement has been about consulting and training with government officials throughout the state on how to do public engagement.
And we’ve worked in several cities that have heavy Latino populations. So, obviously the translation of materials, you have to make sure that those are in a format, not only in their translation but how they’re translated, is in a way that’s understandable to those that you’re speaking to.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned around the state, especially speaking with leaders of different ethnic organizations, whether it’s Latino or Asian-American leaders, is almost all of them say that the translation of ballot material is very poor. It’s usually done in a very complicated way; the language is usually very complex.
So, a top to bottom review of the translation of all of our ballot materials is definitely a priority for me.
The second thing is, you really need to make sure you’re connecting with leaders in those local communities, because as with many ethnic communities, there are usually points of contact, what I would call influencers in those communities…
Q: With your specialty in technology, what advancements do you think that California needs to make to come into the 21st century with its voting?
That question actually has two different parts to it. There’s technology inside the voting booth and technology outside the voting booth.
Number 1, we need to bring voter technology into the voting booth. California has lagged behind almost every other state in the fact that many use some form of touch screen voting in the voting booth.
Why that’s important is not just to bring technology into our elections process, but it also enables better civic engagement. I’m in LA County. We’re still using pen and paper, what I like to call 14th century technology, and what that prevents are early voting opportunities….
But, as I also mentioned, there’s voting technology outside the voting booth. As I may have mentioned before, California’s one of the bottom five states in using technology to inform voters.
And so we need to do a much better job of connecting with voters through the website and through what I would call civic technology partners to make sure that we’re provide information online in a format, whether its on your computer screen or on your hand-held device, that letting you know not only the ballot information packet but also where your nearest voting place is. Making that information readily available online in California actually has a long way to go…
Q: Do you think that it’s in California’s future for online voting to come about?
A: While I definitely am a supporter of technology in the voting booth, I am skeptical from what I’ve seen about the tests that have been done in online voting…
I still think, when you get onto the online space, there are some significant security issues I would want to make sure are addressed.