September 2008 – A Profile in Courage – Venice Resident, and Secretary of State, Debra Bowen Makes Good

Debra Bowen got her start in politics as the attorney for the Venice Town Council. When she was elected California Secretary of State in 2006, like any good Venetian, her first act was to ban electronic voting machines. This courageous act earned her the attention of the Kennedys. Both Ted and Caroline attended her award ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Library.

The Beachhead salutes Debra Bowen for keeping the faith!


“When a comprehensive review of California’s new electronic voting machines revealed that election results could be altered on the new machines, Secretary of State Debra Bowen did not wait for things to go wrong on election night. . .” – Caroline Kennedy


“Her position was highly unpopular, but she didn’t hesitate. She began the daunting task of ensuring fair and accurate voting. Last August, she courageously decided that she had to do something about it herself, and she de-certified three of the most widely used electronic voting systems in the state.” – Sen. Ted Kennedy


Acceptance Speech by Debra Bowen

To the Kennedys, what a joy to be amidst your family. To the outstanding board and staff of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, the distinguished members of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Committee, thank you for this most humbling honor. 

You have caused me to think about the nature of courage, but not much has become clear.

There is one thing that I know though, and that is that courage is not the same thing as fearlessness. I am often introduced as being “fearless,” but that is not true – and because I know that I have inspired at least a few young people, I feel a great responsibility to ensure that they know that fear is not a disqualifier for a life in public service.

For me, the equation is simple – I fear my own inner critic more than I fear the condemnation of others. I would rather be greeted with cynicism and criticism by the editorial board of a large newspaper than to live with the certain knowledge that my actions, or failure to act, did not come from a deep place of justice and integrity. 

I know that sense of justice and fairness is what motivated me in junior high school to organize a sit-in outside the principal’s office, over faculty censorship of the student newspaper. 

It is why, in ninth grade, I orchestrated a protest over a school policy that did not allow girls to wear pants to school. My geometry teacher kicked me out of class for wearing pants, and I got a zero on the test. But I was not in trouble at home, because my parents had taught me that you do not have to accept the status quo if you think improvements can be made, and that standing up for what is right can never be wrong.

My family did not have a VW van with a bumper sticker that said, “Question authority.” I grew up in the district of a courageous liberal Republican congressman, John B. Anderson of Illinois, whose integrity in office served as a role model for me. He continues to serve as a role model as the president of an organization called FairVote, which acts for universal access to participation in elections and majority rule with fair representation for all.

Despite my background of organizing protests at school, I am an accidental politician. I never set out to run for public office. I got involved with Neighborhood Watch in about 1987, working as a volunteer on local issues, and one thing led to another. I was simply too naïve to know that you didn’t just run for a seat in the California Legislature, and so I did in 1992 and, as they say, the rest is history. 

But I learned growing up that nothing happens by itself, that citizens must act if they desire change. During my three years at the University of Virginia law school, I became aware that democracy itself does not sustain itself – that, as Thomas Jefferson said, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. And I am sure this is what John F. Kennedy meant in noting that democracy is not a “final achievement,” but rather “a call to an untiring effort.”

While democracy does not sustain itself, it is self-correcting over time. 

As a nation, we are prepared to fight for our ideas, to vote, and then to accept the results, win or lose, knowing that the discourse will continue and that the next election will present another opportunity. And in trust of this, we have laid down arms, turning to ballots rather than to bullets to further the choice of leadership in our country.

But that only works if citizens believe that our elections are free, fair, and open, and if citizens can verify for themselves that the results are accurate.

My task as Secretary of State is to ensure that the fundamental tools of democracy – our voting systems – are up to that extraordinary responsibility.

That was the basis of the first-of-its-kind top-to-bottom review of voting systems that I commissioned in 2007. I wanted – on behalf of all voters – to know whether the systems we use to cast and tally our votes are secure, accurate, reliable, and accessible.

I invited the public to participate as fully as possible. I am grateful to all of those who criticized and commented, including elections officials in California, who helped me self-correct in the very design of the review.

The proprietary software itself poses a particular challenge. If people themselves are not allowed to analyze the computer code running the system, and 99% of people could not verify that the code accurately reflects the will of the people even if they could see it, how could I, as the chief elections officer of California, give them nothing more than a request to “trust me?”

Our democracy is not built on trust alone. The checks and balances – the mechanisms of self-correction – anticipate that errors in judgment will sometimes be made and that trust will sometimes be violated, but that the system will be tough enough to discover the truth and to recover its bearings.

With the scientific analysis of the top-to-bottom-review as my guide, I chose to favor the transparency of voter-marked paper ballots, which can readily be recounted, coupled with the accuracy and speed of the computer to do the tedious work of counting multiple races. I required strict post-election audits, to make sure that the scanners and all the computerized equipment have performed correctly, because that’s something we cannot know simply by observation.

That meant sidelining some expensive equipment, but how do you argue that voters deserve less than the best we can provide?

Our work on California voting systems is only the beginning of my pledge to work for a system that moves us towards President Reagan’s abiding principle: Trust, but verify. Play, but cut the cards.

It is up to each and every one of us to cut the cards as we continue the work first begun by our nation’s founders over two centuries ago. Had our democracy not evolved, more than half of the people in this room and in this country, would not be voters – because you had to be white, male and, in most states, own land in order to vote. Of course, we have evolved to include all citizens in our electorate, and we must continue the quest for progress in all aspects of our government.


I have been inspired by the grassroots and the netroots who have pushed for a voting system worthy of our democracy. I would not have run for the office of Secretary of State without their encouragement, support, and hard work.

So I will accept this award on behalf of every person who believes that there is nothing partisan about ensuring that every eligible voter has the opportunity to vote, and that every ballot is counted as it was cast.

And I share this award with every voter who has had the courage to question our electoral process, and with everyone whose untiring effort protects the integrity of our democracy.

Categories: Politics, Women