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California Secretary of State Debra Bowen made it clear this week that she has some problems with a major non-profit effort to improve elections and increase the number of people registered to vote.

Bowen and David J. Becker, the director of election initiatives for the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Charitable Trusts, shared a panel during a Senate hearing this week on science and innovations to improve voter participation.

The two disagreed soon after sitting down. Becker, citing U.S. Census data and other research, said 8.2 million Californians are eligible but do not register to vote, a number greater than the populations of all but 13 states.

Bowen interjected, saying the eligible-but-unregistered number is actually 6.4 million. Her office's latest registration report shows almost 24.1 million people eligible to vote and almost 17.7 million voters. Becker said the official registration number does not reflect hundreds of thousands of people who have died or moved.

The disagreements continued. Bowen questioned a Pew-organized effort called the Election Registration Information Center, or ERIC. Several nearby states, including Colorado and Utah, participate in the project and share voter-registration data. Its goal is to identify voters who have moved between states, and ensure they are re-registered quickly.

But Bowen said her concerns about the data-sharing project — such as ERIC automatically removing voters from the rolls — have been ignored. "Unfortunately, rather than embrace the concerns and the critics, ERIC simply chose to exclude their critics from the discussion," Bowen said Tuesday. "What happened after I wrote that letter is I was never invited back again to another ERIC meeting."

Not so, say Pew and ERIC officials, who added that they long ago ruled out automatically removing voters flagged by ERIC without first contacting them. Pew, Becker said later, has invited Bowen's office to six Pew-sponsored meetings since January 2011 to discuss ways to improve elections, including ERIC. Pew received no response to most of the invitations, including for a meeting later this month in San Francisco, he said.

"Not having California being part of a really important data exchange...hurts the other states and I think it hurts California, too," Judd Choate, Colorado's director of elections and ERIC's chairman, testified.

This week's hearing was led by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, one of six candidates running to succeed Bowen. At a forum last week, Padilla talked of the importance of registering eligible people to vote but was noncommittal Tuesday about joining Colorado and the other states in ERIC.

PHOTO: Secretary of State Debra Brown at a Capitol hearing in March 2012. The Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling


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