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California Secretary of State Race Draws Crowded Field

Secretary of state candidates Derek Cressman (D), Sen. Alex Padilla (D), Pete Peterson (R) and Dan Schnur, an independent, debate in Sacramento on April 23, 2014.
Ben Adler, Capital Public Radio
Secretary of state candidates Derek Cressman (D), Sen. Alex Padilla (D), Pete Peterson (R) and Dan Schnur, an independent, debate in Sacramento on April 23, 2014.

With one arrest, the California Secretary of State race exploded onto the public stage. What had been a quiet, if crowded, race became front page news with the arrest of State Senator and Secretary of State candidate Leland Yee on corruption and gun trafficking charges. There was wide speculation on how that would affect the election. But Claremont McKenna Political Science Professor Jack Pitney says all the attention likely didn’t result in better informed voters.

“Well, Leland Yee got people to pay attention to Leland Yee,” Pitney says. “It’s unlikely however that it got people to pay attention to the issues that the Secretary of State has to deal with.”

And there are a lot of issues. The state’s campaign finance disclosure website is notoriously out of date. The office’s technology is also becoming antiquated. Kim Alexander is with the non-partisan California Voter Foundation.

“So California is really at a disadvantage today, in some ways, because we were so advanced with our technological innovations early on, compared to other states,” Alexander says. “For example, we were one of the first states to create a voter registration database, which we did back in 1995. And today that database is in need of replacement.”

View complete election coverage from KPBS News.

There are several men vying for the job. Republican Pete Peterson is leading in the polls with 30 percent, followed by Democratic State Sen. Alex Padilla at 17 percent. Green Party Candidate David Curtis, Independent Dan Schnur and Democrat Derek Cressman round out the top five. Pitney says there’s a clear reason why the office is so coveted.

“This job is a stepping stone. Particularly with Alex Padilla,” Pitney says. “He’s a very young, ambitious person. And if he does a good job as Secretary of State, perhaps other things lie in the future. After all, our current governor is a former Secretary of State.”

Pitney points out the office is more administrative than ideological and says all of the candidates are qualified. At a recent debate Peterson, Padilla, Cressman and Schnur largely agreed on most topics. They believe counties should receive more money to run elections. They believe the state should offer both mail ballots and in-person voting. However, they take different positions on campaign finance reform.

Schnur has proposed banning fundraising while the Legislature is in session.

“I believe that if you do ban fundraising, not just for some of session, and not just for most of it, but for all of session, what you’re essentially doing is creating a separation and you’re weakening the link between political giving and government action,” Schnur says.

Padilla wants a more limited ban.

“Fact: There are 12 other states in the nation that have some form of fundraising blackout period in place,” Padilla says. “Fact: There are three other states in the nation that had fundraising blackout periods that were challenged in court for being too long and were overturned by the court.”

Cressman maintains fundraising bans are useless.

"What will happen is the exact same lobbyists will meet with the exact same legislators the morning of the vote and rather than handing a checkthey will make a pledge to support that legislator after the session,” he says. “They actually get to watch them and see how they vote before they deliver their check.”

Peterson brought the race back around to former candidate Yee.

“Four of the six contributions that Yee received from the FBI undercover agents were received while the legislature was in recess,” Peterson says. “And so to think that legislators can’t raise money outside of a fundraising ban is just baloney.”

Yee will continue to play a role in the race. Even though he withdrew following his arrest, state election code dictates Yee’s name will still appear on the ballot.