Debra Bowen: A Politician Who Gets 'IT'

California secretary of state proves the value of a tech-savvy political leader.

by / July 29, 2008

Is it ironic one of California's most technologically adept public officials essentially outlawed the use of touchscreen voting machines? Not really, according to Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

Bowen - who explains her e-voting decision in this month's cover story - set strict limits last August on the use of touchscreen technology, formally known as direct-recording electronic voting machines. In her ruling, she cited a number of troubling security flaws in the systems, which threatened the integrity of electronic balloting. The move forced counties to revert to older voting technology for the state's Feb. 5, 2008, primary and the upcoming November presidential election.

So what's the deal? Bowen has a long history of leadership on IT issues, starting with her efforts as a rookie state Assembly member to put state legislative information online in 1993. But in this instance, her technology experience raised a red flag.

"I found that the more time someone has spent on the inside of the software and computer industry, the more likely they are to express to me their concerns about relying on computers for tallying and recording the vote," Bowen said, adding that without her own IT background, she would have had a tough time understanding the issues at play.

Presumably the kinks in touchscreen voting eventually will be ironed out. But in the meantime, Bowen's ruling - which recently earned her a Profile in Courage award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation - illustrates the value of electing leaders who understand and are interested in technology. Given that technology is part of everyday life for most Americans, political leaders can scarcely afford to ignore these issues or shrug them off as the "IT guy's problem."

Another feature in this month's issue may hold a few clues to how well this year's political candidates - or at least their campaign staffs - understand the business use of technology. Government Technology Associate Editor Chad Vander Veen looks at how candidates at all levels are using Web 2.0 to raise money, engage voters and spread their messages. Perhaps most intriguing are several young candidates for local offices who have made low-cost, blog-intensive Web sites a key part of their campaign strategies.

As these 20-somethings work their way up the political ladder, IT-savvy leaders will become the norm, rather than the exception. And that'll be a good thing.

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