latimes.com, From the Los Angeles Times
emerges from shadows with dramatic decision
The secretary of state has championed some important, if
low-profile, issues over the years as a legislator. Friday's late-night
decision on electronic voting machines captured the limelight.
By Joel Rubin
Times Staff Writer
August 5, 2007
For a tech geek who has never been described as flashy,
Debra Bowen demonstrated a rare flair for the dramatic late Friday night in
With only minutes to spare before a midnight deadline to
determine whether the various electronic voting machines used by counties were
reliable, California's bleary-eyed secretary of state concluded there was the
potential for serious security breaches. She decertified the voting machines
used in 39 counties, including Los Angeles County, whose InkaVote system could
be reinstated in time for the February primary. She also imposed a slew of
security protections for upcoming elections.
The late-night suspense and controversial decision — one
that is certain to place California at the center of the national debate on
electronic voting and cause headaches for already overworked county election
officials — led to some immediate grumblings that Bowen was overreacting and
seeking the spotlight.
But such claims are far off the mark, according to several
people who have observed and worked with Bowen over her nearly 15 years of
public service. The lawyer-cum-Democratic politician, they say, has earned high
marks for an impressive mix of smarts, determination and a no-nonsense attitude
as she has championed some important, if low-profile, issues over the years.
"She's one of the few people who, when they make a
splashy decision like this, it's not about the headlines," said Ned
Wiggelsworth, a former policy advocate for Common Cause, which lobbies for
campaign finance reform. "It's about the issue."
After more than a decade in the state Legislature, Bowen,
51, prohibited from seeking reelection because of term limits, unseated
Republican Bruce McPherson in a close race last year. She won despite raising
far fewer campaign funds, becoming one of only six women in California history
to capture a statewide post. The race swung on the two candidates' differing
views on the electronic voting machines, with Bowen voicing doubts about them
and promising to conduct a review.
To those who have tracked Bowen's time in government, her
interest in the secretary of state's utterly unglamorous but important job of
overseeing elections in California came as little surprise. It is a natural
extension, they said, of a career focused largely on the nexus of citizens'
rights and technology.
Raised in Illinois, Bowen earned her law degree at the
University of Virginia and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, where she
eventually came to focus on environmental law. The obstacles she routinely hit
while trying to access relevant information held by government agencies spurred
her to run for office, she said in an interview.
Soon after joining the state Assembly in 1993, where she
served three terms representing a South Bay district, Bowen co-authored and won
an improbable fight for legislation that required the Legislature's workings to
be put on the Internet.
It was an early, telling battle.
"She never followed my path blindly, which annoyed
me," said former Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, recalling the two
terms Bowen served in the Senate after she was termed out of the Assembly.
"She's special," Burton said. "She's beyond
reproach. If she thought something was wrong or she didn't agree with
something, she had no problem looking me in the eye and saying, 'No.' "
During her time in the Senate, Bowen remained relatively
unknown outside of Sacramento but earned respect among her colleagues. She took
on the issue of identity theft, pushing through a law that forced financial
institutions to take greater security precautions with clients' personal
information. After other high-level committee positions, including chairwoman
of the Senate's energy committee during the state's energy crisis of 2001, she
went on to head the Senate Elections Committee, where she began questioning in
earnest the reliability of electronic voting machines.
Bowen blamed the bizarre circumstances surrounding her last-second
decision Friday on the voting machine companies, saying they were slow to
provide needed information. More than one observer, however, commented on
Bowen's taste for detailed technology reports and wondered, only half-jokingly,
if she read every line of every report before talking to reporters.
"She is very capable of wrapping her mind around some
very complicated issues," said Kim Alexander, founder of the nonprofit
California Voter Foundation. "She's a bit of a tech geek."
Bowen doesn't dispute the characterization.
The daughter of an engineer, Bowen said she was prohibited
by school officials from taking drafting courses in high school and discouraged
from pursuing a career in science. "If I had been a boy," she said,
"I would have been an engineer."
"I just find these issues so interesting," she
added. "Instead of revisiting issues we have been dealing with since time
immemorial, where only the details change but the fundamental questions remain
the same, this is looking at technology that is giving rise to a whole new set
of questions that no one has thought about. I love that."
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times