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New California Secretary of State Alex Padilla Plans Tech Overhaul

The former senator and technology champion has big plans to use technology to engage voters and increase transparency.

by / December 8, 2014
Jessica Mulholland

Alex Padilla was elected as California’s secretary of state last month, after eight years as a state lawmaker. Lauded for his leadership on high-tech issues, Padilla is taking his passion for technology to his new office, with plans to completely modernize how Californians register to vote and conduct research on campaign funding during election cycles.

Government Technology spoke to Padilla to get this thoughts on his new role and how technology will play a vital part in his tenure as secretary of state.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

GT: During your time as a state senator, you were honored as a technology champion. But your new office has a history of technology problems, from crashed databases to issues approving voter registration. In your mind, what are the top couple of technical issues that must be addressed quickly and correctly in the Secretary of State Office?

AP: There are three that are immediately at the top of the list. One is a program called VoteCal. That’s the centralized voter registration database that is required by the federal government. It’s a project that’s seen numerous delays. The current timetable has it coming online in mid-2015. So the stakes are high on a successful rollout. It’s important not only for federal compliance, but also for other tools that it can enable, including our same-day voter registration law. The ability to show up on Election Day, register and cast a ballot is contingent on this system being up and functioning.

Number two, as with most states, the largest unit in the Secretary of State’s Office is the business unit. California, home of Silicon Valley, still doesn’t allow for online business filings. To me, that’s inexcusable. And so we’re going to change that. That project is in its early stages in the Secretary of State’s Office. But we want to make sure we bring it to fruition sooner rather than later.

The third is not a project yet, but will be. Our Cal-Access system, the campaign finance information website and database – that definitely needs to be revamped. Not just making it more reliable, but a complete overhaul. I think ideally, you could have much more frequent disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures. Right now, legislators and constitutional officers don’t have to disclose, sometimes for up to six months, their fundraising spending activities. So there would [need to be] a legislative change.

But as far as the website goes, the campaign finance database, almost every time it requires multiple searches to find and compile the information you’re looking for. Everything is segregated right now.

For example, look at me. There’s information on that website when I was a member of the Los Angeles City Council that is separate and apart from my funds raised and expenditures from when I was a state senator. So if someone wanted to do an in-depth assessment of my campaign activities, [he or she] would be forced to spend a lot of timing doing multiple searches as opposed to having a seamless profile for any individual campaigner and candidate.

GT: Financing big systems is always a challenge. Where do you envision the funding coming from, assuming upgrades are inevitable to voting systems and databases?

AP: We’ll check the status of all the accounts and do an internal audit if necessary. There’s been some money appropriated for VoteCal and the business filing system. Cal-Access does not [have funding]. At some point, we’ll have to request funding for that project. But if we can utilize technology to have the office operate more effectively and efficiently, we can apply some of the savings to future technology projects. And I see huge potential in the business filing side, for example. The fact it’s very paper-based makes it personnel heavy. If you can make these filings online very efficient, you can use a lot of those efficiency savings and roll that into other projects.

GT: During your campaign, you stated multiple times that the secretary of state should spend a great portion of their time marketing and encouraging voter participation. Can you expand a bit on how technology furthers that goal?

AP: If you look at the turnout numbers from the November election, it was a very stark reminder how important it is for us to get more people to register to vote, and those that are registered to cast their ballot. I think the final number was just shy of a 42 percent turnout rate. That’s not democracy at its finest.

Far too often I only hear from elected officials after the fact that turnout was so low. We need to have a full-on campaign to remind people to vote and how to vote, prior to the election. We have to do our part to strengthen our democracy. Whether that’s PSAs and press conferences, it’s got to be much more than that.

I don’t underestimate the power of social media in helping get the word out. It doesn’t always have to be from a government official. You can attract celebrities and other community leaders to spread the word of how important it is, and we ought to pursue that.

To be really forward-thinking, I’m excited and intrigued about the Colorado Vote Center model. Utilizing technology … to give people who choose to vote in-person the flexibility and option of voting in a polling place other than simply where they live will be more convenient [so that people can] vote near where they work or where they drop their kids off at school. Technology is something that could allow for that.

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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