For this episode, John met with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who is revolutionizing the state’s democratic infrastructures. You’ll learn about Secretary Padilla’s innovative efforts to increase voter registration and turnout across California, while answering the critical needs for election security and voter fraud prevention. It’s all about “thinking outside the box” at the ballot box, so listen in.
Links to subjects mentioned:
- Fair Political Practices Commission
- California State Archives
- Proposition 187
- Ballot Bowl
- California Voter’s Choice Act
- Equality California
- Democracy at Work
- Ed Roybal
- A Rage for Justice
- Mayahuel in Sacramento
Listen to our other podcasts here or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Play
John Bwarie: I’m sitting here with Secretary of State for California, Alex Padilla, who’s been in this position, elected since 2014, and sworn in, in January 2015, so he’s been in this job for over five years now. And we’re here talking about what it takes to be Secretary of State for California and work with the people of California because there’s a lot we could talk about with the Secretary of State about working in the politics, and working in the government.
John Bwarie: But really, this is a very public serving and by public I mean people-serving position. You are holding the trust of the people in many aspects of their life as it relates to voting, as it relates to records, and so you have a very important role in interacting with people and you can’t just tell them what to do. You got to work with them. So, I’m really excited to sit with you and talk with you about what it takes to be part of a community of 40 million people in California.
John Bwarie: You’re state-wide elected, so you’re representing all of them and really serve them in this role. So, tell me. Let’s start off with what is the Secretary of State’s responsibility here in California and what was the office like when you arrived? What was it five years ago?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Sure. I appreciate that that’s the first question because the office of Secretary of State, the duties and responsibilities of a Secretary of State is probably one of the lesser understood constitutional offices in the state. Clearly everybody knows who the Governor is, and what the Governor does, the Attorney General, the Treasurer, that’s pretty straightforward, Superintendent of Public Instruction, but Secretary of State, what is that?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Unlike a federal Secretary of State that deals with international diplomacy and crises at times, a state Secretary of State has a different set of responsibilities. If people know anything about the Secretary of State’s office, they think elections. That’s arguably the most important part of the job. Overseeing elections in California no longer serve the proper administration of elections, but we’ve actually worked in the last couple of years to change the official duties and responsibilities.
Secretary Alex Padilla: The Secretary of State now has to commit to increasing participation rate, heaven forbid. Not just, “Oh, okay. Let’s make sure everything’s done by the book,” but to increase participation rates on voter registration side, on the voting side, especially in areas of California where participation has been lower. And we can get into that during the course of our dialogue.
Secretary Alex Padilla: If you look at my budget or the number of personnel positions, the largest function of the Secretary of State is actually what we call the Business Programs Division. All the business filings that people are required to do with this state, whether you’re starting a new business, or maintaining your statements of information, entrepreneurs and accountants know what that is, or even a non-profit, for example. Are you forming an LLC, or an LLP? Those sorts of things. We process millions of transactions throughout the course of the year. Another part of the office is the Political Reform Division. The Secretary of State is not the FPPC, right? They’re the enforcement. They’re the compliance arm.
John Bwarie: And that’s the Fair Political Practices Commission.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Practices Commission. They’re the enforcer of compliance arm when it comes to campaign finance. But, by state law, all state candidates and campaigns have to submit to the Secretary of State, regular reports of where they’re raising money from, how they’re spending their campaign money, and it’s our job to make that information publicly available. And we can talk about our efforts in that spaces too.
Secretary Alex Padilla: One of the neat aspects of the Secretary of State’s office that most people overlook is the state archives. The first law passed by the first legislature of modern California named the Secretary of State as the custodian of the state’s official records and documents. Kind of like that movie “National Treasure” with Nicholas Cage.
John Bwarie: Yeah. Are you in the catacombs of the Capitol?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Catacombs, and yes, I’m not trying to steal the California Constitution, but we do have one. In fact, we have two. One is in English. One is in Spanish.
John Bwarie: Wow.
Secretary Alex Padilla: We’re a very diverse state from day one, so there’s a lot of neat California history that most people may not be aware of and it’s our job not just to protect and preserve the records, but have an equal emphasis on making it publicly available. And we have a variety of initiatives to utilize technology platforms to make it more accessible to the general public. So, a lot going on in the Secretary of State’s office.
Secretary Alex Padilla: When I first decided to run for Secretary of State, those are the couple of visions and motivations. At the time, if you go back to five, six years ago, it was soon after the Shelby v Holder decision by the United States Supreme Court, fancy legal talk for the opening of the flood gates on the modern age voter suppression efforts that we hear about across the country. The purging of voter roles, voter ID laws, reduction of polling places, the state center making it harder for eligible people to register to vote or to actually cast a ballot.
Secretary Alex Padilla: I didn’t think those efforts would ever gain traction in California, but it did provide California an opportunity to be the counter example, right? How do we modernize elections in a way that makes it easier for eligible people to register to vote, make it easier for registered voters to cast a ballot while maintaining the security and integrity of the elections?
John Bwarie: Which in recent years has become even more scrutinized because of what we saw happen in 2016.
Secretary Alex Padilla: When I was running five years ago, because the office had kind of been overlooked or hadn’t really been at the spotlight since …
John Bwarie: Maybe underappreciated.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Underappreciated since the 2000 Presidential election. Even my closest friends would ask me like, “Really? That’s what you want to run for?” I would articulate what I thought needed to happen with the office. I’d thank them for the opportunity. I think 2016 changed the game, right with all the chatter about hacking, rigging of elections, foreign interference, etc.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Clearly the spotlight is on elections now in a way that it hasn’t been in a long, long time. So, we’re working feverishly yes to register more voters, yes to increased registration rates and participation rates, but also to make sure that we protect the foundation of our democracy, free and fair elections from not just foreign interference, but even some domestic threats, cyber and otherwise. So, the job is in a spotlight like it hasn’t been in a long, long time and much more appreciated to use your words, as it should have been all along.
John Bwarie: So, let’s take voting for a minute and elections because I think that’s probably the biggest responsibility, the biggest publicly known activity. As you said when you came in, sort of elections happened, and people voted or not, and then you came in. So, what are some of the key things that inspired you from your experience as a voter, as a representative? We know that before you started in this role, you were elected at the State Senate level, you were the President of the Los Angeles City Council, having been elected in 1999 to the City Council seat. You were 26?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Correct.
John Bwarie: I remember where I was at 26. I was not running for office. I mean not many 26-year-olds do it, and you were there and won. And at 28, you were seated as the first Latino City Council President and the youngest City Council President.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Correct.
John Bwarie: So, you’ve got experience with voters asking them for your vote, asking them to vote for you, asking you for their vote. What drove you to say, “Okay, what are the changes we’re going to make?” How did you look at that experience, and who you knew, and the experience you had to say, “Here’s how we can make changes to increase the way people felt comfortable voting?”
Secretary Alex Padilla: Right.
John Bwarie: And register for voting.
Secretary Alex Padilla: And protecting the public confidence in our electoral process.
John Bwarie: Exactly, exactly. So, how does that come to be?
Secretary Alex Padilla: I’m going to take you back even a few years prior to my election to City Council.
John Bwarie: Okay.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Because I think there’s a variety of points of view and experiences I had to bring to the table in this capacity. First, “Why am I in politics and government to begin with, right?” Public service is a career I’ve chosen and I’m passionate about, but that wasn’t always the case. As you recall, I graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a mechanical engineering degree of all things. So how do you go from engineering to politics?
John Bwarie: It doesn’t happen very often.
Secretary Alex Padilla: It doesn’t happen very often. My short answer is, “Well, hey. Engineers are trained to solve problems. Isn’t that what politicians are supposed to be doing?” But the true life story includes freshly back from college, struggling to maintain and engineering job in the Aerospace industry in Southern California in the early 90’s. If you recall there was a big recession at the time, but also the political climate I came home to. In November of 1994 there was a measure on the ballot in the state of California that we now refer to as Proposition 187. And for folks who may not recall Proposition 187 and you take the national political climate today, some of the stuff that we hear from one of the political parties about immigration, about immigrants, that believe it or not was the political climate in the state of California.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Proposition 187, anti-immigrant, scapegoating measure passed. It wasn’t even close. It even passed in Los Angeles county. And as a proud son of immigrants, someone who was living the American dream, my parents came here and worked hard, sacrificed tremendously for my brother and my sister and I just to have an opportunity at good education, freshly home with a degree from one of the best engineering schools in the world, only to be told through political rhetoric that our country is going downhill and it’s because of people like my parents? No way. I learned immediately that we needed to engage politically, right? Otherwise our community would have continued to be attacked and scapegoated.
Secretary Alex Padilla: And so, while the northeast San Fernando Valley, the geographic community I was born in isn’t a place that historically is known for wealth and campaign contributions. I learned in high school government class that hey, we live in a democracy. We have the right to vote and when we go vote, all voices are equal, but only if you participate, right? Your political voice is not heard unless you participate. Born here, proud citizen, registered to vote became active. And because of the engineering background, I was decent at math. And I know that hey, 10 votes are louder than one. And 100 votes are louder than 10. So, as much as it’s important for me to vote as an individual, true power in American politics lies in numbers. And so, I set that engineering degree aside and just jumped into politics with both feet from managing campaigns to working as a staffer before ever running for office.
Secretary Alex Padilla: And so, I share that because now as Secretary of State, I get to oversee elections, administer elections, not just in a way that’s safe, secure but more inclusive, right? So, when we make it easier for eligible people to register, we’re strengthening our democracy by making it more inclusive and representative of the people. So, I bring the experience as a young person, sort of whose eyes are open to the importance of political involvement as a staff person, as a candidate, as a voter, as an office holder, as a local government official, as a state legislator and now yes, as Secretary of State and toss in the engineer degree for good measure. Because technology is constantly evolving creating tremendous opportunity to advance strengthening our democracy, but also threats. We mentioned cybersecurity earlier and it’s important to have a proficiency in all that to do this job to the best of our ability.
Secretary Alex Padilla: So, we bring all that to the office of Secretary of State and start with the basics. How can we increase voter registration rates, for example. Well, some people say it’s really not that difficult if you want. Go down to the post office, go down to the library, fill out a form. And granted, that’s how I registered to vote, on paper. But if technology exists today that helps us facilitate the registration of more eligible citizens. First of all, that’s a federal mandate. It’s in the National Voter Registration Act that goes back more than 20 years. And number two, you look at participation numbers, right? Registration rates, turn out rates. We know we have a lot of work to do because we’re far from that 100% participation.
John Bwarie: Give us an example of how in our last state-wide election or a recent election percentage.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Well, the very year that I was elected Secretary of State, 2014, November 2014, amongst registered voters, turn out was 42 and a half percent.
John Bwarie: So, less than half that were registered to vote. Not eligible, but registered.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Right. More than half of the registered voters sat it out. That’s not good for us and that doesn’t include the five to six million people who are eligible but not even registered. So, we clearly have a lot of work to do. Flash forward, several years later, the 2018 election, just four years later, we added a couple of million people to the voter rolls who were taking big bites out of the eligible but unregistered population. And even with the addition of a couple of million voters, turn out was 64 and a half percent. So, turn out was way up, nearly double the number of ballots cast in a four-year time period. So, we’re making tremendous progress, still have a lot more to go.
Secretary Alex Padilla: So, some of the highlights of how we’ve strengthened the registration side. California was one of the first states to allow for online voter registration. Again, with all the security measures and protections against fraud in place, we make it easier for people to register to vote online.
John Bwarie: So, anyone eligible to register could go online and register if they have access to the internet and a computer?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Exactly. Registertovote.ca.gov. It takes about two minutes if you have a driver’s license or a state ID because that’s how we pull your signature for voter registration purposes. So, you can do it on paper or you can do it online. We launched a pre-registration initiative in California so you don’t have to wait until you’re 18 anymore. We know young people, especially right now are very animated. They’re paying attention to politics. At the age of 16 or 17 you can pre-register to vote. We’ll keep your data sort of in hiatus but activate your registration on your eighteenth birthday. So, if you pre-register to vote, you’re good. You don’t have to do it again when you turn 18.
John Bwarie: Is that something that you pioneered or is that something that had been done in other places?
Secretary Alex Padilla: It was a concept floating around in a couple of states. When I was in the State Senate, I voted on the bill to put that into law in California, but immediately upon being elected as Secretary it is my responsibility to implement it.
John Bwarie: Implement it.
Secretary Alex Padilla: And just a great little story I’m proud of. The initial law was envisioned as just an additional box on the voter registration card, so 16 and 17-year olds can fill it out, check the box and do it that way. Well, when we launched automatic voter registration, we made sure that it included the pre-registration opportunity. And the way that works is when people go to the DMV to apply for or to renew their driver’s license or their state ID, or even if they’re changing their address for their driver’s license, if they’re eligible, they’re automatically registered to vote unless they choose to opt out. That has been a game-changer. California was the second state in the nation to adopt automatic voter registration.
Secretary Alex Padilla: And in the first year alone we’ve added a million people to the rolls through automatic registration, again taking big slices out of the eligible unregistered population and equally important and powerful is more than three million previously eligible voters were able to update their information. Because when people move or whatever, you want to get your driver’s license through your new address but they forget to update their voter registration. So, now we have much more accurate, cleaner up to date voter rolls which is good all the way around.
John Bwarie: So, let’s go back to that component about pre-registration. I remember when I was 16, I knew everything about the world, right, because I was 16. I knew everything. We all did, right? Sixteen year-olds know everything. But, there are 16 year-olds who are actively engaged in the political process and this is exciting for them. Did you have an opportunity to work with those pre-eligible voters as in developing the program and working to get their input in the way you might roll it out or engage with them or after the fact, is there work you’re doing with those 16 and 17 year-olds to continue to refine and expand the program?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Absolutely and to be working with young voters and potential voters is a big priority for us because again, going back to the engineering mind, if you look at who is it that’s eligible to register but hasn’t registered? Disproportionately, it’s working-class communities, it’s communities of color, but it’s young people, right? Millennials represent the biggest potential voting block in America and California is no exception. But there are political voices not realized because registration rates are lower and voting rates are lower amongst that group. So, we’ve spent a lot of time developing initiatives and resources for young people specifically, but there’s this pre-registration program so you can pre-register on paper or online or automatically through the DMV, but also put tool kits together.
Secretary Alex Padilla: I remember when I was 16 too. If I got an official postcard from the California Secretary of State, I wasn’t paying any mind, right? And the reason we want to talk to young people at 16 and 17 is chances are they may be going in to get their driver’s license so there’s an opportunity there. But your scenery here when you’re turning 18, my mind was on the prom and financial aid applications for college, right? I’m not thinking about registering to vote. So, I want to emphasize those opportunities. The best organizers of young people are not politicians.
John Bwarie: Really?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Other young people, so as we’re promoting the opportunity to pre-register to vote, we have a committed dedicated portal, highschool.sos.ca.gov that has pre-registration information, tool kits on how to organize their voter registration drive on your high school campus or in your community and other tools there. And we’ve seen that just flourish and blossom everywhere throughout the state. More than four-hundred thousand young people have pre-registered to vote in California since we launched and it’s going strong, a couple thousand each and every week. And that’s at the high school level. At the college level, same thing, we’re out there not just providing the opportunity but physically visiting campuses up and down the state. We launched a ballot bowl competition.
John Bwarie: A ballot bowl?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Ballot bowl.
John Bwarie: Like the Super Bowl for voting?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Like the Super Bowl, like the Rose Bowl, like the Orange Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl. There’s campus pride and competitiveness when it comes to collegiate athletics. Let’s try to capture some of that and apply that to civic engagement.
John Bwarie: Okay.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Over the years we heard, “Oh, you see Santa Barbara does a good job of reaching out to students to register” etc. Well, let’s get a little bit of competition and rivalry going and we did. And in the first year alone, 2018 was ten thousand college students either registered or updated their registration through all the activities happening throughout the state.
John Bwarie: Who won the Bowl in 18?
Secretary Alex Padilla: In 2018, the winner was Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
John Bwarie: Okay.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Fullerton had a strong showing. Santa Barbara had a strong showing and that was the first year alone so a lot of the campuses that didn’t win are now extra motivated to do even better next go around. Different categories of winners [inaudible 00:20:32]
John Bwarie: What’s the trophy look like?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Percentage registration increase and just creative ideas.
John Bwarie: What’s the Super Bowl trophy of the voting bowl?
Secretary Alex Padilla: I think a very modest Stanley Cup.
John Bwarie: Nice.
Secretary Alex Padilla: It’s gold colored.
John Bwarie: Nice.
Secretary Alex Padilla: But it’s a point of pride.
John Bwarie: Absolutely. So, that’s really interesting that you’re able to get on to campus in the place and recognize. Number one, I think it’s strong for a leader that’s working communities to recognize that they may not be the best messenger, nor be the best organizer, that it takes people in that community to have the tools to be the messenger and the organizer to get the outcome of a stronger community. I mean, that’s what all of this does is builds stronger community. Yes, they’re registered to vote. Yes, now they’re maybe a little more politically aware, but that just spills out into the rest of their civic engagement, right? Understanding what the world around them looks like and how they may have an impact on that.
John Bwarie: And that’s really powerful especially in a state with this many people, right? Forty million people, how do you wrap your head around that? I mean, when you think about what our goals are about engagement, how many universities do we have? I don’t even know off the top of my head but I know that there’s hundreds probably across the state. When we look at these numbers, put your engineering hat on, the engineer’s hat. How do you sort of grapple with and divide and say, “How can we get three million more, five million more, not just to register but now to get to the polls?” How do you tackle those numbers at that scale?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Well, you’re informed by the numbers so there’s so many houses that goes into not just sort of demographic information, by age, by income levels, etc. of who is eligible but unregistered or even registered but doesn’t vote every single time. Right? And that can inform…
John Bwarie: The low propensity voter, right?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Low propensity voters. From an old campaign perspective, 505 voter, that means people who vote five times in five elections, but you got the 205 voter.
John Bwarie: Yeah.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Right? The only vote at Presidentials or what is it? And that can help inform. And so, we know that facilitating voter registration is only half the battle. Just because somebody is registered doesn’t mean it will be every single time so what can we do on the voting side to improve our chances? While I was running, I heard a lot of ideas and suggestions and what other states are doing. My first year in office we continued our survey of how to other states do it? How do other jurisdictions do it? And while my first legislative proposal as Secretary of State was automatic voter registration and it’s been enormously successful. The second proposal I submitted was to change how we fundamentally administer elections that yes is more efficient, yes is more secure, but most importantly, is more voter-centric. It’s better for the voter.
Secretary Alex Padilla: And so, it’s known as the Voter’s Choice Act. It was approved by the Legislature. Five counties made the transition to the Voter’s Choice Act in 2018. Many, many more in 2020 and it looks like this. The old way of voting in California, it’s not that difficult. You can either vote by mail and that’s convenient for a lot of people, right? More than half the state’s voters have been voting by mail for several cycles now. But if you want to vote in person, if you stop and think about it, it’s not very user-friendly. You have one designated polling place closest to where you live on election day only from 7 am to 8 pm. For my folks who are retired, that’s not inconvenient for them. They got time on their hands. For working people? What is 9 to 5 anymore?
John Bwarie: Right.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Right. You got to get to work. You got to get home from work. Maybe you’re leaving the office at 5 or whatever your job is and in a lot of places in California we have this thing called traffic.
John Bwarie: Yeah, tell me about that.
Secretary Alex Padilla: That keeps you from getting home quickly and if you’re like me and a lot of families, you maybe got kids to pick up from school, little league practice, you got to get dinner on the table. Now at the end of a day like that, I got to go stand in line somewhere before 8 o’clock? There’s got to be a better way and there is. So, under the Voter’s Choice Act, counties that choose to make the transition, here’s what the election looks like. A month before the election every voter automatically receives their ballot in the mail.
John Bwarie: Wow.
Secretary Alex Padilla: You don’t need to request it. You don’t need an excuse. Every voter automatically receives it. The state of Washington, the state of Oregon, they’re all vote by mail only and turn out has gone up since they made those transitions. I think in California we got one better. Every voter can receive the ballot in the mail and they have options for how to return the ballot. You can return the ballot by mail. Thanks to the Governor and the legislature you don’t need a postage to worry about anymore. Right? You don’t need a stamp. Return postage is covered. The counties are installing what are known as ballot drop boxes so kind of like a mailbox but clearly marked for ballots only throughout the county and any voter can drop their ballot in one of these secure drop boxes anywhere in the county convenient to them in the weeks leading up to the election. And as many people prefer to vote by mail, there’s still a lot of people who prefer to vote in person.
John Bwarie: That’s me. I want to make sure my ballot gets in the system right where I see it.
Secretary Alex Padilla: And that’s my dad which means it’s me too because guess who takes my dad to the polls every election? But again, there’s got to be a better way and there is. With a little bit of technology, we can get every voting location access, not just to voters in that neighborhood, but the list of all the voters in the county. So, what does that mean? That empowers every voter to go to any location in the county convenient to them. Imagine being able to vote close to work or close to where you drop your kids off at school, or close to the grocery store or whatever the case may be.
Secretary Alex Padilla: And there’s more. With these vote centers, modern polling places, we call them vote centers, will be open for 11 days up to an including election day. So, you can vote the week before. You can vote the day of. You can vote over the weekend, all the people who want Saturday voting. You know, that becomes an option. You can vote anywhere in the county convenient to you and that’s if you didn’t vote by mail to begin with. So, all these voter’s choices facilitate participation by giving voters more options of when, where and how to do it. We had a record turn out in the 2018 election, highest turn out for a midterm election since 1982. The five counties that adopted the Voter’s Choice Act in 2018 exceeded the record state-wide turn out. So, it’s not just a good idea that we’re crossing our fingers now. We know it works and now 15 counties throughout the state will be implementing the Voter’s Choice Act in 2020. That’s not the majority of counties, but it does make up the majority of California voters.
John Bwarie: Wow.
Secretary Alex Padilla: So, quickly, these benefits and choices are reaching more and more voters. So, we’re anticipating record registration and record turn out in 2020.
John Bwarie: When you talk about turn out too and going to the polling place, I know that you’ve got some initiatives. Not everybody is always comfortable in a place that’s a public place. People might have access and functional needs. They may have a name that doesn’t match their appearance. How have you dealt with the diversity of California when it comes to volunteers at a polling place that are doing their best to protect? We couldn’t do it without them, the local volunteers and they’re doing their part for the security and safety to make sure there’s no voter fraud by following the instructions they’ve been given and the rules they’ve been issued. How have you been working to incorporate the understanding of the diversity of California in the polling place? Because we’ve talked about a lot of people like to go to the polls.
Secretary Alex Padilla: In a couple of ways and good moment to take a time out and say, “Thank you.” Thank you to the 58 county election offices throughout the state of California and from the Registrar of Voters and the county clerks and their entire staff team. And of course, the thousands upon thousands of volunteers that help out on election day. Our democracy wouldn’t function if it wasn’t for those poll workers that are committing of their time to the most important exercise in our democracy.
Secretary Alex Padilla: To your question, “So how do we work with them to ensure the elections are administered appropriately?”
John Bwarie: And specifically about….
Secretary Alex Padilla: Security and accessibility, right?
John Bwarie: Accessibility, right.
Secretary Alex Padilla: They go hand in hand. It’s not one or the other. First of all, training, training, training. [inaudible 00:29:15] seeking input from advisory committees and working with county officials to make sure that the training for these poll workers is constantly revisited and fresh and representative of new laws, new protections, new procedures, etc. It’s one of the benefits, by the way of the Voter’s Choice Act. When I say we’re modernizing the polling places to vote centers, there’s a lot of up sight to it. I had initially, and we’ve heard off and on, but there’s fewer locations. Right? Instead of setting up four thousand polling places and you can only go to your own in Los Angeles county, now there’s only a thousand locations.
Secretary Alex Padilla: That raises some eyebrows but it’s offset by but you can go any day to any location convenient to you. It’s going to be better for everybody at the end of the day, but by reducing the number of places, we’re also reducing the number of voting booths you need to order and the number of poll workers that we need to recruit, hire and train. So, all of a sudden counties are in a position to be able to kind of professionalize the operation a little bit by relying more on county employees or much more experienced regular volunteers. Right? They’re not struggling to recruit just enough volunteers and have so many first-time volunteers each and every election that are coming up to speed on election law in California and how to assist a voter. So, the more that the Voter’s Choice Act spreads throughout the state, I think that’s going to be a significant benefit improving the voter experience at the polls.
Secretary Alex Padilla: But we never rest. Constantly we’re revisiting the previous election. What did we learn? What problems did we detect? How can we make it better next time? One of the recent announcements we made was a partnership between my office and Quality California. And your question earlier talked about, “What if somebody comes in from a poll worker perspective and their life experience?” They see a name and they see an individual and maybe the name and the appearance doesn’t match. You know what? That’s not their call to make.
John Bwarie: Right.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Whether it’s fashion and style, whether it’s gender identity or presentation or anything else, California is better because of the diversity of our state. We are the most popular state in the nation, the most diverse state in the nation. We represent the largest economy of any state in the nation, but fundamentally when it comes to the polling place and the voting booth, voting rights matter to us and we’ll fight like hell to defend it and that means not just making it easier to register, but easier to cast your ballot in a welcoming environment at the polling place for anybody who chooses to vote in person.
John Bwarie: It’s amazing. You know, a couple years ago I coupled with a non-profit and we did a party at the polls. Outside the polls it wasn’t contingent on someone voting, but they were able to celebrate with food and music and activities for families around the voting experience on election day.
Secretary Alex Padilla: I’ve always wondered, why is there a DJ in the voting booth? We treat it like a library.
John Bwarie: Ironically, ours is at a library and we were outside the library. The voting was happening in their community room in Burbank in California and we ended up just having like a party outside. So, people came out and had a good time and that idea that someone actually was there to say, “Hey, welcome. You’re not even close to the booth yet. You’re not filling out your forms yet.” But someone’s like, “Welcome. Yeah, yeah, get in line here.” It was welcoming and we told people. We were there sort of in partnership with the city and the library to be that welcoming committee and say how exciting it is to vote in a democracy like the United States.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Right. Thank you. Congratulations. Let’s celebrate what we’re all doing.
John Bwarie: Yeah, exactly. And the reaction we got from people was like, “This is awesome. Who’s paying you to do this?” I’m like, “No, no, no. This is just our commitment to our neighbors and our community.” It was actually my polling place so I focused on that and I think it’s really the idea no matter where you come from or what your background is or you’ve recently become a citizen or if you were born here and you voted for 70 years, that everybody, as you said at the beginning of our conversation, everybody’s vote is equal weighted. It’s not more important because you voted for seven elections or you haven’t voted in 70 years. It doesn’t make a difference.
John Bwarie: And I think it’s really interesting, you mentioned that you had advisory committees. How do you figure out who to get advice from? I mean, it’s a big state. We can’t over-emphasize that. You just made a good point about it’s economy, it’s population. How do you get the insight to make sure you’re not distracted and you’re focused but you still get the perspectives? You got an amazing, immediate staff that works with you and gives you advice and you’ve got probably close allies, but how do you really look at 40 million Californians?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Well, I don’t think that’s a challenge or an opportunity just for the Secretary of State, but frankly for any public official.
John Bwarie: Right.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Right? The same would apply to the Governor. It would apply to the Speaker of the Assembly or any legislator for that matter. The same applies to a Mayor, a council member, a county supervisor. It’s part of the job. When you’re on the campaign trail seeking votes there’s an opportunity to build a relationship with constituents but that doesn’t end on election day.
John Bwarie: Right.
Secretary Alex Padilla: After election day, whether it’s a public comment period during a city council meeting or anything else, there should be constant opportunity for members of the public to try to influence, inform and engage their representatives. That’s very, very healthy. Forty million is a lot of people. I can’t read 40 million letters a day.
John Bwarie: No.
Secretary Alex Padilla: So, it is a bit of a bouncing. I have a great staff. We’re constantly interacting. Look, any community event that I go to whether it’s an official event or I’m at the grocery store, there are people who are happy to give me their opinion and give me their ideas, either tell me what I’m doing right or tell me what I’m doing wrong. And that’s good to the extent that it helps inform my priorities or decision making. I think that’s healthy.
Secretary Alex Padilla: A couple of examples. When I came in as Secretary of State, there was some very informal advisory committees to the Secretary of State. One on accessibility, right? When we determine where polling places ought to be got to make sure that they’re accessible to all voters regardless to physical ability. But it’s not just the locations. Maybe it’s the equipment itself, right? What if somebody is blind/ What if somebody is deaf? What if somebody is, but they’re citizens eligible to vote? They should be able to vote privately and independently as well. So, even the mechanisms and equipment for voting has to reflect that access commitment that we have.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Another advisory committee was foreign language, right? California is a large and diverse state, hundreds of languages spoken throughout the state. So, whether it’s translation of the ballot and the voter information guide or other elections-related materials like, “I wish I knew all those languages but I don’t.” So, how do we get that input from others? I thought that structure was so important, we formalized it. So, we sponsored legislation to institutionalize those advisory committees to the Secretary of State and we’re considering doing more whether it’s through Native American voting rights because of that unique history in the country and the state of California, for example.
Secretary Alex Padilla: So, there’s a big role for advisory committees to play in addition to staff, in addition to write your legislator, in addition to it’s okay to interrupt me at the grocery store.
John Bwarie: So, before we leave voting because there’s some other things I do want to ask you about. I want to ask you a macro question, both as a public official for decades and someone whose responsibility it is to get people engaged. What are your strategies that you use to engage the unengaged, the apathetic, the people who feel like voting doesn’t matter? I mean you talked about a lot of the stuff you’re doing to modernize and make secure and make accessible but how do you reach that guy? The Uber driver, the last time I was in Sacramento, he’s like, “I don’t vote. It doesn’t matter, so I don’t vote.” I was like, “You’re living in the capital and you’re not engaged?” What are some of the things you can do as an expert in people because that’s the work you’ve done for so many years? What are things that you do to get people engaged and to reawaken maybe their value as a contributing citizen civically engaged?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Right. Well, there’s a few things. First, if there was a magic pill that made it easy just to inspire people to want to get engaged and they recognize the value of their participation of our democracy, it would be a best seller. There’s canvassers that come around or issues that come around from time to time that really animate people. The 2008 Presidential election for example, that was the high watermark for turn out in California because of this Senator Barack Obama who was running for President among other factors at that time.
Secretary Alex Padilla: There’s the mechanics of it all, right? We talked about what other states are doing that are putting up unnecessary barriers in my opinion to participation of what we’re trying to facilitate. So, giving people more options for registration and for voting while maintaining the security and integrity I think moving aggressively in that is key.
Secretary Alex Padilla: We talked earlier about me knowing full well that government officials, that’s not going to convince everybody, so who else do we engage in the conversation? We have a program known as Democracy at Work where we partner both with private and public sector employers to help us get the word out through their voices and through their communications platforms. Don’t forget to register, here’s the link, don’t forget to vote on a non-partisan basis.
Secretary Alex Padilla: A couple of examples, you mentioned an Uber driver. So, starting in 2018 we partnered with Uber whereas both for drivers and riders in those days leading up to the voter registration deadline and election day when you open the app as you’re scrolling tracking your ride, you were getting reminders, “Are you registered to vote?”
John Bwarie: Wow.
Secretary Alex Padilla: If not, click here and it would take you to our voter registration link. Or, “Tomorrow’s election day. Do you know where to vote? Click here and you can find your polling places or your vote centers.” Those types of tools, that’s not a postcard that goes from the Secretary of State’s office to folks. That’s just utilizing Uber’s platform but their relationship with their drivers and their customers. A couple of other fun examples, I had a chance to throw out the first pitch at Petco Park in San Diego. While I’m a Dodgers fan, we’re out there pitching voter registration on National Voter Registration day and that’s great for San Diego, but we did the same thing with the Modesto Nuts a couple of years ago, a farm team in the Central Valley. So, we try to get creative with our partnerships and our outreach initiatives. It’s not just speeches although I’m happy to those as well.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Starbucks has been a great partner for the last couple of election cycles. They have put up posters above the coffee/sugar station on the community boards with again, links and information to voter registration, “Don’t forget to vote” information so utilizing unique relationships and opportunities like that. We have specific MOU’s with UC system, the CSU system and community colleges up and down the state, communicating to anybody who works for those colleges and universities. And of course, the students, their communication platforms and reminders of key deadlines, “Don’t forget to vote.” LA Metro has been a partner giving a signage on buses and trains and stations to get the word out for people who may not have a car. They commute on public transit for a living because they’re important too. Anybody and everybody is important.
Secretary Alex Padilla: So, in addition to traditional media, social media, we try to take advantage of as many of those partnerships as possible.
John Bwarie: Partnership is key then?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Absolutely.
John Bwarie: Forty million people, you don’t reach them one at a time. You got to reach them through partners. I want to talk to you about the State Archive for a second.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Yes.
John Bwarie: Because here’s something that is really valuable because it is our history and without our history we can’t look to a future. We have to understand the good things and the bad things that we’ve done in the past to make sure we don’t repeat mistakes and we can improve on things that maybe weren’t done correctly and build on successes, right? That’s the nature of our history. And in archive, sometimes misunderstood or under-appreciated is really that formal record, but it isn’t just pieces of paper. It’s artifacts. It’s the history, the narrative history of a place or an item or an issue.
John Bwarie: California has got a long history. It’s got a tremendous history in terms of the varied populations that have come and left or come and continue to grow here. How do you make that interesting and accessible? I mean, if you’re trying to engage the public, I know that most cities have archives. A lot of historical societies and museums have archives. In Los Angeles County there’s an archives network based out of USC that talks about the history of this place which is a good part, but not he entire state, but a good part of it. What is the things that you’re working on to get people interested and what do you hear from people? What’s the value to them if you’re not researching the history of AB-65, specific bill per se?
Secretary Alex Padilla: And it’s probably the most exciting examples of modernization of the office.
John Bwarie: Right.
Secretary Alex Padilla: You asked in the beginning, “What was this office like when I first got here?” We talked about voting rights, what was going on across the country, but as an agency of state government, I thought there was a lot of modernization that was necessary. We talked reforms in the election space in the business programs division. Everything was very paper-based when I got here. We’re trying to automate that so entrepreneurs and business owners can conduct their business online.
John Bwarie: I appreciate that as an entrepreneur.
Secretary Alex Padilla: And to the state office and stand in line and file paperwork through the political reform division, right? Not just electronic filing of those finance reports but public access being more reliable, more intuitive, more informative of that money in politics databases. But the archives are exciting because we know why it’s important to maintain the record for research purposes, [inaudible 00:43:52] etc. But this belongs to the people, the people of California and the press is interested from time to time too. And it shouldn’t require you to take a physical trip to Sacramento to make an appointment, let the Archivist team know what you’re looking for and you can maybe look but don’t touch or got to bring it back in a few hours. We’ve reached out to this start up company in the barrier called Google.
John Bwarie: Oh, I think I’ve heard of that.
Secretary Alex Padilla: To once again, in partnership, to digitize more of our collection and upload it and make it available online. Imagine that. And while that can be overwhelming, that you just put in millions of documents or artifacts or whatever, without curating it, it might be interesting for a minute but making it user-friendly, more engaging if you’re able to curate it. So, aside from the data that goes along with each of the images, well more than a dozen exhibits now that we’ve curated and are available online, either through our website or the Google Cultural Institute platform. Exhibits about the history of the Secretary of State’s office for example or the building of the Bay bridge or fascinating.
Secretary Alex Padilla: If you look at California history at the beginning as California became a state.
John Bwarie: So, this is all since 1850, right?
Secretary Alex Padilla: 1849, 1850. What was going on and now the United States of America at the time. Well, the Gold Rush, that was the impetus for a big population influx. But it was also a national debate that’s still going about slavery. Slave states, non-slave states and new states coming in under what terms and a Civil War. There were Californians that fought in the Civil War. I’m telling the story because there’s an elections connection here, right? Just as there is today, men and women in uniform, domestically or serving abroad around election time, we go out of our way to ensure that they can still cast their ballot in an election, right? They’re fighting for our democracy. They shouldn’t have to choose between serving the nation or participating in a democracy.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Same question was raised back then. Californians that are going to be off serving in the Civil War, that was the impetus for the development of vote by mail.
John Bwarie: Really?
Secretary Alex Padilla: All the way back to the early California days. So, how do we capture that story into an exhibit through what we have in the state’s archives for public benefit? So, Kurdish people that go on to the State Archive’s webpage and look through the collections there, old photographs, old artifacts.
John Bwarie: Do you have a favorite artifact? And like all your children, how do you pick one?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Got to pick. I’m constantly fascinated still by the original California Constitution. California didn’t come out of nowhere.
John Bwarie: Right.
Secretary Alex Padilla: It was what we know as today, California was part of Mexico prior to statehood in the United States. It was part of Spain prior to that and of course, as a tremendous Native American indigenous history that California is not sufficiently told. And so, we’re working in partnership with tribal leaders and others to try to come up with ways to do that better using what we have in the archives and other partner resources. The one that’s tremendously popular every time we reference it is, like as I mentioned, the original California Constitution because of the constitution that’s often the process to it. Go back to Monterrey, California where the first California capital was.
Secretary Alex Padilla: You can go to the same room where the Constitutional convention was held where they were debating and try to feel that environment in the era of “Hamilton,” the musical and a newfound respect for the founding fathers and what it took to create the country through the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, the crafting of a Constitution, etc. Some are stories state by state including California where some of the leaders of the Mexican forces were at the table helping devise the new California Constitution.
John Bwarie: Really?
Secretary Alex Padilla: And the fact that there’s, excuse me, the English Constitution and the Spanish Proclamation, they go hand in hand.
John Bwarie: So, it wasn’t just a translation of the document?
Secretary Alex Padilla: No.
John Bwarie: It was two documents.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Until we have both in the Archives, we display both from time, of course, it’s up digitally for anybody to peruse. I just think it’s fascinating because all the history that is sort of behind the scenes of those two documents. Archives includes, yes, copies of every bill that’s been signed and passed into law so if you’re a government and politics geek, yes, we have the original Prop 13 language or the acts that were signed into law whether it’s to protect the coastline or air quality or things of that nature. Some of them more intriguing, not because they were official state property at the time, but the California Archives were entrusted with a lot of the Robert Kennedy assassination items from the pistol that Sirhan Sirhan used.
John Bwarie: Wow.
Secretary Alex Padilla: The clothes he was wearing that evening because of the investigation that took place after the fact and now that still continues to inform California to this day that California Highway Patrol has a dignitary protection section for the protection of Constitutional Officers, sort of like the Secret Service that didn’t exist when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, right? That’s one of the things that spawned with the Secret Service that we know today, so kind of replaying what happened at the Ambassador Hotel that night. What went right? What went wrong? And very wrong helps inform even public policy and public safety to this day.
John Bwarie: Besides online, do you ever think of doing the Secretary of State Archives roadshow across California with these artifacts and different cultural institutions? Is there an exhibit in the works?
Secretary Alex Padilla: We have kicked around few ideas from time to time. Some of the items are a little more sensitive.
John Bwarie: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Secretary Alex Padilla: To travel with. But one of the things that we are taking on the road are archives in partnership with the National Archives.
John Bwarie: Oh, great.
Secretary Alex Padilla: This year is the centennial of women’s right to vote so summarizing the Suffrage movement and bring items on display, not just to Sacramento but to Los Angeles and other places in between. It’s something that we have in store for the year.
John Bwarie: Great, great. So, before we wrap, you got a big job. You’re working on modernization. You have term limits. So, you’ve got…
Secretary Alex Padilla: Three more years still.
John Bwarie: Three more years. What’s the future hold for California in 10 years. with the work you’re doing and you’re going to do in the next couple of years, can it be sustained if you’re not in that role? What happens when you don’t have someone who understands that this is people-focused first and not about bureaucracy-focused or institution-focused? What happens?
Secretary Alex Padilla: I like to think that a lot of what we put in place is definitely sustainable and I’ll give a couple of examples. Number one, among other efforts, automatic voter registration.
John Bwarie: Right.
Secretary Alex Padilla: The reasons I think that’s so powerful is if you’re eligible to vote in America today, but you’re not registered, you don’t even get the state voter information guide. If you’re eligible to vote in America today but not registered, the county doesn’t send you the sample ballot. If you’re eligible to vote but not registered, chances are you do not have candidates and campaigns knocking on your door or calling you during dinner.
John Bwarie: Right.
Secretary Alex Padilla: So just the sheer systematic adding of eligible rolls creates that activity. Now all of a sudden, okay it might not be overwhelmingly influential, but you can’t say you never got the voter, you can’t say you didn’t know, right? You’re going to get the minimum, “Hey, there’s an election coming up. Here’s what’s on the ballot. Here’s where and when you can go cast your ballot.” But I think it creates much more of the campaign outreach and at least maybe conversation amongst neighbors, within family and the workplace about what’s going on. That’s got to have a good long-term affect on civic awareness and dialogue, hopefully conduct and engagement. So, I do think that some of these initiatives that we put in place will have definite long-term benefits.
Secretary Alex Padilla: The other thing is when we ran the bill, sponsored the bill to add some language to the duties and responsibilities of Secretary of State, very much under the radar, nobody caught it. There was no headlines but I think profoundly important. I mentioned when I came in, the job of Secretary of State on the elections side as a Chief Election Officer was simply to oversee the proper conduct of an administration of elections. But there was no requirements for a Secretary of State to go out and do better, right? Get more people registered, increase participation rates. I mean I come in with that philosophy. I think it’s the public expectation that whoever Secretary of State would do that, but it was not a mandate.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Today it is and so whoever comes after me or whoever comes after he or she may have different philosophies but unless that law is ever changed, the legislature now has an opportunity to bring that person into a hearing and say, “The statute says you’re supposed to be doing this” and hold the future Secretaries of State accountable for whether they are or whether they aren’t and if they are, how? So, again, very subtle but I think profound in where we’re sort of leaving those thumbprints and fingerprints and footprints and all kinds of prints behind to change how this office goes about it’s work.
John Bwarie: So, what word of advice or word of caution do you give someone who’s trying to either inspire change or has a responsibility to make change in a community to increase engagement? What’s the advice you give them? The people come after you, your successors. What do you give them as advice in terms of grappling with the issue of engagement?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Yep. Got to do it on all fronts. Yes, I’ve given examples as we’ve talked about using public policy and the legislative process to make some change. We’ve talked about, oh okay, communications and media, traditional media and social media and otherwise. And as powerful as those tools can be, I’m still convinced there’s no substitute for personal engagement, right? I can tweet all day long but when I still go to a high school anywhere in California to talk to young people about the importance, the response is tremendous. That doesn’t just happen on its own. So, you got to do it. You got to do it everywhere and you got to engage others in doing it as well.
John Bwarie: Cool. Well, I want to move on to our lightening round to close us out. I’ve got eight questions for you. Just one word or so answers. Don’t think about it too much, don’t explain it. Just go with it. And don’t worry about making enemies by answering these questions.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Coffee is the first question of what do I have for breakfast.
John Bwarie: Who is a leader who has influenced you in your work?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Ed Roybal.
John Bwarie: What book has changed the way you think about the role of community in your work?
Secretary Alex Padilla: “Rates for Justice.”
John Bwarie: What local restaurant do you always bring friends to when they visit Los Angeles and conversely, in Sacramento?
Secretary Alex Padilla: In Los Angeles, “La Sirenita”, great Mexican seafood in San Fernando Valley. In Sacramento, “Myowell.”
John Bwarie: What’s the first place you turn to for information when you’re working in a new community either geographic or interest group? What’s the place you start to look for information?
Secretary Alex Padilla: You know, seeking out whether it’s elected official or other recognized leader in the area.
John Bwarie: To you, let’s see if you can get a one-word answer or short answer on this one. To you, what makes California unique and exciting?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Diversity.
John Bwarie: Great, great. What advice would you give 25-year old you? That was a pivotal year for your, right?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Don’t be shy.
John Bwarie: And what was the best career decision you ever made?
Secretary Alex Padilla: Getting married.
John Bwarie: Nice.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Not as a career decision. As a life decision.
John Bwarie: But it’s a career decision, right? If you didn’t marry the right person, you wouldn’t be able to do what you’re doing.
Secretary Alex Padilla: It made me a better person which I think makes me a better servant.
John Bwarie: Great. And so far, finally. So far, what has been your proudest professional moment? You got to look back 20, 30 years.
Secretary Alex Padilla: There’s a lot to choose from. The runner-up might be being one of the presenters at the invitation of President Obama at the White House of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. But number one would probably be the ribbon cutting, the opening, the dedication of the Discovery Cube of Los Angeles because it was more than 15 years from the idea of a state-of-the-art children’s museum in the San Fernando Valley to serve all of Los Angeles that people told me time and again, it will never happen, it will never happen, there’s no way. It’s open. It’s been open for five years now and it’s been a tremendous success.
John Bwarie: Great. Well thank you Secretary Padilla for your years of service but for also sitting down and sharing your insights about how you deal and work and inspire community to be more civically engaged.
Secretary Alex Padilla: Absolutely. Thank you. Let’s do this again sometime.
John Bwarie: Sure.