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Monday, March 14, 2005

Secretary of State, not Secretary of Party

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Responding in large part to the recent scandals which drove California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley from office, several California legislators have introduced bills to address the problem of partisanship by the state's top elections officer, as Steve Lawrence reports for the Associated Press in the San Jose Mercury News.

The bills separate themselves out into two basic categories: those that prohibit party labels in elections for the office (Assembly Member Canciamilla and Senator Denham), and those that address partisan activities by the Secretary of State while in office (Senators Bowen and McClintock).

Prohibiting the use of party labels would do little to reduce partisan actions by the Secretary of State, while at the same time would deprive voters of an important source of information about the candidates.

A better approach is to limit the actions of the Secretary of State in such a way as to ensure voter confidence that the decisions and actions taken by the Secretary of State are done in a nonpartisan way. So, a ban on endorsements of candidates or ballot initiatives by the Secretary of State makes sense, as does a ban on contributions to candidates or ballot campaigns. Similarly, prohibiting partisan activity by the Secretary of State outside of their official duties would help.

Another idea to reduce partisanship would be to hold an open primary for the office of Secretary of State. This would force candidates to appeal to a broader range of voters, making it more likely that the winning candidate would be less the partisan and more the public official that the position was intended to be.

A great way for the Legislature to show that they are sincerely interested in reducing the partisanship in the Secretary of State's office is to reduce the partisanship at the upcoming hearings on Governor Schwarzenegger's nomination for the vacant office, former Assemblymember Bruce McPherson. The Democrat-controlled Legislature could certainly slow down the process by raising any and all objections to McPherson, a Republican, but it is in the interest of the people of California to have a qualified Secretary of State as soon as possible. If no job-related reasons exists to turn down the nomination, the Legislature should approve McPherson after appropriate hearings.

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