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The Most Tech Savvy Candidate Running for Statewide Office This Year is a Republican

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, October 24 2014

CA State Sen. Alex Padilla (left,) Davenport Institute's Pete Peterson (right.)

A record low percentage of Californians voted in the mid-term primaries this year. Pete Peterson, a Republican civic engagement expert running to be the next secretary of state, thinks that better technology and design could go a long way toward changing that dismal statistic.

“I know what good printing looks like. I know what bad design looks like,” declared the 47-year-old executive director of Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute at a September Secretary of State candidate forum in Sacramento.

That declaration might seem pretty picayune, but it’s his enthusiasm and attention to the often mundane mechanics of elections and civic engagement that seems to be gaining Peterson, a first-time political candidate, traction against Democratic establishment figure Alex Padilla, a 41-year-old Democratic state senator from Los Angeles, and a MIT-trained mechanical engineer.

Peterson has garnered endorsements from most of California’s leading newspapers. Noting that a prime task of the Secretary of State’s office is to be an effective “custodian of campaign finance and lobbying records,” and that the office “faces technical challenges that require engaged, committed and creative leadership,” the Los Angeles Times this May pointed to Peterson as the right professional for the job. Meanwhile, The San Jose Mercury News endorsed Peterson on the basis that he’s got the right mix of experience as a civic engagement and technology expert, and that California’s experience under current Secretary of State and former state legislator Debra Bowen demonstrates that having someone connected in Sacramento isn’t necessarily helpful.

For its part, the San Francisco Chronicle endorsed Peterson because of his commitment to expand California’s pool of voters, and because he’s said “the research is explicit” that fraud isn’t a problem at the voting booth. A self-described “limited government Republican,” Peterson has even received an endorsement from a local progressive weekly. In early October, San Diego CityBeat urged its readers to vote for Peterson on the basis that “he’s dedicated his career to increasing public participation in civic affairs,” and that they’re not for Padilla because of his 2008 vote to keep redistricting powers in the hands of the state legislature rather than in the hands of an independent citizens commission.

“We’d love to endorse Padilla, if only to put a Latino in high statewide office—and because Republicans scare the crap out of us. But we can’t overlook Padilla’s completely wrongheaded opposition to the initiative (2008’s Prop. 11) that took the power to draw political district boundaries away from politicians. With that position, he was making a stand for the good ol’ boys,” read the editorial.

To be sure, many eligible voters in California simply don’t exercise their privileges because they’re turned off by political partisanship, they don’t believe their vote counts, or they’re uninspired by their choices. But many studies, including one conducted by the National Conference on Citizenship and Peterson’s Davenport Institute, find that many Californians don’t vote because they were too busy or had a scheduling conflict, or because they experienced registration problems. It’s these Californians that secretaries of state hope to encourage by making the engagement process easier, more transparent, and more convenient.

On the logistical front, Peterson proposes offering better translations of voting materials, offering more early voting opportunities and setting up “voting centers,” a solution that other states such as Colorado have had success with. He’s also advocated higher levels of collaboration with civic organizations such as church groups and community organizations, getting the state DMV to improve its process for registering voters, and improving the processes for absentee ballots and provisional voting. Like Padilla – he recognizes that significant progress can’t be made without the presence of a statewide voter registration database that can be updated in real-time. California is one of the last states to implement such a database. The new system, called VoteCal, isn’t scheduled to become fully operational until the middle of the next presidential election cycle in 2016.

But Peterson also talks up the importance of design and technology.

“I think if there’s anything you can say about the civic engagement work I’ve been doing around the state, it is that it is aware of, and using technology to its utmost – this whole field of government 2.0 is something that I’ve been involved in for many years,” he said at the September forum organized by the Public Policy Institute of California.

For his part, Peterson wants to create a “dashboard” that would appear on the front of the secretary of state’s Web site that would use the Pew Charitable Trusts’ criteria for measuring election performance to track the office’s progress at improving on those criteria. California currently ranks 49th in the country on the performance index. The study cited the state’s high use of provisional balloting, and the problems associated with that process, as one of the main factors for its low ranking.

Both Peterson and Padilla have also piled on to Bowen for the office’ abysmal performance at registering new businesses. An investigation into the process last year unearthed the fact that the Secretary of State’s office processes business registration documents with a filing system of three-by-five index cards, and that there was a six-week backlog in processing those registration applications.

But Peterson goes further and notes that it’s hard for businesses to even figure out how to register. Pointing to Nevada’s Secretary of State Web site during the September candidate forum, Peterson noted its clean design and easy navigation tools. For example, the Nevada site features a “Start A Business” button, but it’s not obvious from the California secretary of state’s site where one should go to begin the process of registering a new business. He also proposes using registration data to issue an annual “Coming and Going Report” that tracks why businesses are starting in the state, and also why they’re leaving.

Among other things, Peterson also wants to overhaul the whole user experience interface for voters from the way ballots are designed to Web sites through a “Design for Democracy Summit,” which would involve California’s graphic designers and user experience experts. He'd also create a committee of civic technologists who would advise the office on how best to engage the public with the appropriate tools.

Once he gets into office, he said a top priority would also create a catalogue of what data is available from the office in an open format and publish it online.

Peterson shares many similar views as Padilla when it comes to the big issues that need addressing at the Secretary of State’s office: the need to work with county registrars to figure out the best way to upgrade counties’ voting machines; the need to repair what appears to be a broken relationship between the secretary of state’s office and many of the state’s registrars who have complained of a command-and-control relationship rather than one based on two-way conversations, and who are still bitter that Bowen decertified the voting machines that they spent millions of dollars on; the need for a general improvement in the database technologies that enable better voter registration processes, campaign finance disclosures and business registration filing management.

The difference between the two candidates is that Peterson has spent the past decade figuring out what kinds of civic engagement works under vastly differing circumstances.

One of Peterson’s first projects for the non-partisan civic engagement group Common Sense California in 2007 was to design a system to gather feedback from Californians on healthcare reform for then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The group brought in another non-profit called America Speaks and held a “21st Century Townhall” meeting that involved almost 3,500 Californians providing their ideas on the issue. The event used satellite television, webcasts, television broadcasts and voting keypads to facilitate the discussion.

More recently this September, Peterson participated in a conference call along with Alissa Black of the Omidyar Network organized by the non-profit Community Matters. Peterson and Black were there to advise city and town leaders on how they could most effectively use different kinds of digital tools to elicit various types of feedback from their residents.

Citing an academic theorist on public engagement, Peterson explained the different levels of engagement – from simply informing the public about a policy, to using tools such as MindMixer to actually elicit useful feedback with which to formulate public policy. Then he reminded his audience how they need to actively promote the use of the tools, or risk having them gather dust online. He mentioned that he advises a budget visualization company called OpenGov.com, and suggested that members of the audience might want to check it out. Peterson has even written (wittily) about community engagement and collaboration on techPresident.

For those who’ve listened to the user-experience designers for some of the world’s largest technology platforms talk about the importance of design in engagement, Peterson’s design and technology pitch makes a lot of sense.

There are two big caveats to bear in mind when evaluating both candidates’ promises to improve the office of the secretary of state’s performance.

The first is that neither of the candidates will be in a position to make big changes to two of the big technology projects that are already scheduled to go live in 2016 because they are already well underway. (Both candidates have addressed that by saying that they will keep a close eye on the contractors building the projects.) These projects, the rollout of California’s new business registration database, and the statewide voter registration database, are key to enabling the changes that the candidates are promising. Meanwhile, Peterson agrees with MapLight's President and Co-founder Dan Newman that the secretary of state's office would benefit from simply making its lobbyist registration data available and letting outside entities such as MapLight build software to manage the data.

The second is that the real problem facing the secretary of state’s office isn’t a lack of technology savviness at all. Peterson is fond of pointing out that VoteCal is being implemented by CGI – the same systems integrators that brought us the disastrous Healthcare.gov insurance exchange portal. As Clay Johnson and Harper Reed noted last year in a New York Times Op-Ed, the biggest culprit behind failed large governmental technology projects is the governmental procurement process, which in practice only large companies such as CGI can navigate.

Oftentimes, only large companies such as CGI have the financial wherewithal to fulfill the onerous financial conditions and requirements in procurement contracts. This means that there’s often no competitive bidding for technology projects. Such was the situation when the California Secretary of State issued a request for proposals from technology vendors to build the statewide voter registration database, according to a 2013 California State Auditor report. Such conditions are often imposed in the contracts in order to ensure that vendors are capable of reimbursing the state if they fail to complete the work as specified.

CGI staff might have the best socks, but are they the best vendors?

In an interview, Peterson said that he recognized that the VoteCal contract had already been awarded, but that he would make sure to review the contract thoroughly to make sure that it had been properly awarded and that he’d be keeping a close eye on CGI to ensure that it will fulfill its promises. He’d also try to ensure that his office stays in close touch with county registrars to make sure that everything is going according to schedule.

“At that level, the technology elements, I just want to make sure that I’m on top of those contracts every single day, and making sure that I’m bringing transparency to those contracts”

Padilla’s press secretary did not respond to a request for an interview.

The procurement conundrum is a tough puzzle that may require a long-term collective effort to solve. But with his many ideas and many connections in the world of civic engagement and technology, Peterson is keen to be part of the effort to find an answer.

Peterson's campaign has been out-raised by Padilla's by almost eight to one. The question is whether he'll ever get a chance.

Photos courtesy of the campaigns.