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Bowen cast bold vote

Furor still boils over secretary of state's touch-screen edict

By Peter Hecht - Bee Capitol Bureau

Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, September 29, 2007
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A15

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Secretary of State Debra Bowen's order that most electronic vote machines be shelved has jolted the state's elections system. Sacramento Bee/Brian Baer


Debra Bowen traces her fascination with technology to the tiny work bench in her grandfather's basement in Rockford, Ill., that she got at 5 years old.

California's secretary of state recalls playing with a lathe machine, delightedly carving "real cool metal curlies" as her grandfather tore apart neighbors' broken televisions and radios and put them back into working order.

Years later, Bowen, 51, credits draftsman and machine operator Earl Melville Bowen for her distinct philosophy of governance: "It really is about taking things apart and then putting them back together" to find "a better way," Bowen says.

Now Bowen's highly touted "top-to-bottom review" of California's voting systems is taking apart -- and shaking up -- procedures for holding elections across the state.

Her Aug. 3 premidnight announcement decertifying electronic voting machines used by 9 million out of 15.7 million California voters makes her an instant heroine to activists convinced America's elections are at risk of being stolen through high-tech subterfuge.

Her decision that counties relying on touch-screen voting machines must return to optical scan or other paper ballot systems for the Feb. 5 state presidential primary outrages and worries some county election registrars. It draws protests from machine manufacturers who charge she is putting a chill on technology.

Former Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, whom Bowen narrowly defeated last year, charges that she is leading a premeditated campaign against voting machines in a political pitch to conspiracy theorists.

Bowen's profile amid the firestorm over electronic voting is remarkable given that she has long been one of the Legislature's leading technology advocates.

The daughter of a mechanical engineer, Bob Bowen, she was one of the first Assembly members to own a laptop computer. She wrote a 1993 bill to put California legislation on the Internet and became the first lawmaker to post her own campaign finance reports on the Web.

Yet Bowen is overtly distrustful of technology's potential for abuse. She ran for secretary of state campaigning against "an unprecedented crisis" over fair elections, with commercials depicting thugs breaking into election precincts and voting machines.

On Aug. 3, as she decertified voting machines by Diebold Election Systems, Sequoia Voting Systems and Hart InterCivic, Bowen called for better safeguards for the "fundamental tools of our democracy."

She said the touch-screen machines should be taken out of commission -- with limited use for disabled voters -- after her teams of University of California, Berkeley, and UC Davis computer scientists hacked into electronic voting machines and changed results on models used by 43 of California's 58 counties.

"Throughout the history of this country, we've had people trying to steal elections," Bowen said in an interview a few weeks later. "It's like Willie Sutton being asked: 'Why do you rob banks?' Because that's where the money is. Well, elections are where the power is. So we have to make the assumption that there may be ... some person who wishes to change the outcome.

"The implications of that are so extraordinary we ought to design things so that it's not possible."

Those are galvanizing words for Bowen's most ardent supporters, the Election Defense Alliance, the Verified Voting Foundation, and the Courage Campaign -- groups that view electronic voting machines as easy prey for evildoers wanting to undermine fair elections.

"She is a real grass-roots, 'Net roots' hero," said Rick Jacobs, a former California campaign chairman for 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean and founder of Courage Campaign. The group, which advocates "accountable voting," hosted Bowen in a teleconference Monday and has a forum on its Web site, the "Ask Debra Bowen/Election Protection Group."

"She did what she said she would do: a tough, top-to-bottom review of the (voting) system," Jacobs said. "We're better off because people now have confidence that when they vote, their vote will be counted."

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Party: Democrat

Age: 51; Born Oct. 27, 1955, in Illinois

Residence: Marina del Rey

Occupation: Secretary of state

Education: Bachelor's degree in communications, Michigan State University; law degree, University of Virginia

Experience: State Senate, 1998-2006; Assembly, 1992-98; attorney, 1984- present

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