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Some Wonder If California's Election Chief Is Too Partisan

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California Secretary of State Alex Padilla speaks during a press conference in 2017. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As the man overseeing a crucial presidential election in the middle of a pandemic that has necessitated sending every active voter in the state a mail-in ballot, Secretary of State Alex Padilla has a lot of responsibility on his plate.

Voters elected Democrat Padilla in 2014 and re-elected him four years later. Termed out in 2022, Padilla, like any career politician, is no doubt thinking about his next political move and is widely thought to be eyeing a U.S. Senate seat, like the one which would become available if Kamala Harris becomes vice president, earning her a spot in history in Washington, D.C.

While Padilla is widely considered to be pondering his climb up the political ladder, some are focusing on how that ambition may influence the job he's doing now.

Some election watchdogs wonder if California would be better served by having a nonpartisan or appointed Secretary of State to remove any questions about partisan leanings or political decisions in what is fundamentally supposed to be a job free of politicking.

“We want a Secretary of State in a way to be more like a judge, to make decisions based on the law and the facts, to make decisions a little bit removed from political pressure,” said Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson.

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She once chaired the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, and said it’s important for election officials to be one step removed from politics whenever possible “so that we know if there is a tough election-related call that it's not made because of partisan affiliation.”

For decades the Secretary of State position was a sleepy job, largely beyond public scrutiny. That changed in 1970, when Jerry Brown won the office and used it as a platform to strengthen campaign finance disclosure and increase transparency in the electoral process.

Four years later, Brown rode the position into the governor’s office, winning the job at the age of 36. Ever since then politicians have seen the office as a potential launching pad to higher office.

“When the Secretary State's office becomes a stepping stone to other office, it's inevitable that it's going to serve a kind of partisan purpose. And I think that that disserves the voters,” said U.C. Irvine Law Professor Rick Hasen, one of the nation’s leading election law experts. Hasen said the job should be above politics.

That does not describe the current Secretary of State. Padilla regularly endorses candidates for office and this year he has campaign committees to raise money for three statewide propositions, including ones to end the ban on affirmative action (Prop. 16) and another (Prop. 18) to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections.

“[The Secretary of State] should be someone whose allegiance is first and foremost to the integrity of the election system. I certainly shouldn't be endorsing candidates or serving on their committees,” Hasen said.

Indeed, Padilla has focused on lowering barriers to voting in California and has had to help implement a raft of new state laws doing just that. In the process, he’s been sued by Republicans who say he’s failed to rid voter rolls of dead or duplicated voters.

“So if you're a Republican, you probably see Alex Padilla as really supporting Democratic causes. If you're a Democrat, you probably see Alex Padilla is doing what he should be doing, which is expanding the ability of people to easily vote to make sure that the barriers to vote are very low,” said Loyola Law School’s Jessica Levinson.

In 2016 Padilla endorsed Hillary Clinton for president which she won over Sen. Bernie Sanders. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia that year, supporters of Sanders were furious at Padilla — shouting him down at a delegation breakfast — and claimed he had disadvantaged Sanders in the California primary.

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It is episodes like that one that make Hasen, the law professor, say he would like to see the Secretary of State nominated by the governor, rather than be elected on their own.

“If I had a few million dollars, I would try to qualify a measure for the California ballot that would make the Secretary of State's position a nonpartisan office,” Hasen said.

“What I'd like to see is have the governor nominate someone who is above politics to run the election system and have that person confirmed by a two-thirds vote of the Senate and the Assembly. That way you would have bipartisan buy-in on that person.”

Kim Alexander, founder and president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, has worked with Secretaries of State for more than 25 years. She says one thing, in particular, distinguishes the current office-holder from the rest.

“Most Secretaries of State that I've worked with have been and have operated in a rather nonpartisan way. And that's changed under the current administration,” Alexander said.

We asked the Secretary of State’s Office to comment for this story, but they declined.

Among the people Padilla has endorsed over the years is Gavin Newsom, who the Secretary of State supported in 2017, more than a year before the primary election for governor. And if things turn out as Democrats hope, Gov. Newsom will soon be choosing someone to serve out the remainder of Kamala Harris’s term in the U.S. Senate.

Padilla says he’s honored to be mentioned as a possible U.S. Senator but he’s just focusing on overseeing the November election.

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