Pete Peterson

Pete Peterson

Pete Peterson was the first executive director of Common Sense California, an organization that promotes and supports citizen engagement as a way of producing more creative policy decisions and better citizens. He developed the organization's annual Citizen Engagement Grant Program, which has provided over $200,000 in grants over the last two years to municipalities and school districts across California. Peterson has also consulted on several of these "participatory planning" and "participatory budgeting" projects in cities ranging from Salinas to Palmdale. Peterson has co-created and currently co-facilitates the training seminar, "Leadership through Civic Engagement" - a program offered to California leaders from city planners to regional officials. To date over 350 city, county, school district, and nonprofit officials have attended these seminars. He has written extensively on public engagement for an array of print and online journals. Peterson earned his BA in history from George Washington University, and an MPP from Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy. He was also a public affairs fellow at The Hoover Institution in 2006.


A drive through the office parks of Silicon Valley may fool you into thinking California is a state with its eyes focused firmly on the future. But there’s nothing like a national report from a presidential commission on state election systems to make you feel like you’re living in the Dark Ages.

Silicon Valley, meet Paper Mountain.

While parts of “The American Voting Experience” study from the bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration are a great antidote to insomnia, vast sections speak to election systems of states in a parallel universe – one more advanced than California’s. Specifically, two sections of the report illustrate how, despite its status as most technologically advanced corner of America – the Golden State is saddled with a 20th-century experience when it comes to voting.

Take, for example, page 23 of the report (which is 100 pages in all). The presidential commission casually celebrates “the statewide voter registration lists mandated by HAVA [the federal Help Americans Vote Act, 2002]. Prior to HAVA . . . voters who moved between counties, even within the same state, often appeared on two (or more) county registration lists for a considerable time. The statewide lists go a long way toward addressing that problem.”


California today would fall under the category of “prior to HAVA”. More than a decade after the law’s passage, with $300 earmarked for America’s nation-state, California remains one of the last states without a statewide voter database. After an initial commitment of $4.5 million to a vendor who failed to deliver, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the state’s chief election officer, chose the information technology firm CGI – yes, the same folks fired earlier this month by the Obama Administration after the botched launch of – to create the database. That was supposed to be finished in 2015. A recent tweet from Bowen suggests that even that deadline might not be realistic.

This failure not only delays the launch of same-day voter registration in California, which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2012, it’s also a barrier to ballot integrity. Merely abiding by longstanding federal legislation under HAVA would move California toward 21st-century voter roll accuracy, which, the report notes, “is often a prerequisite to effective election planning and administration.”

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As his Proposition 30 hangs in the balance, California Gov. Jerry Brown continues an old-fashioned barnstorming campaign in its support.

But a recent encounter with potential voters in Southern California reveals that the challenges to the governor’s efforts are as much the media as the message. Specifically, voters are getting harder to reach through traditional “channels” (in this election, this has also been a problem for pollsters struggling to gauge public sentiment in a world transitioning from land lines to cell phones).

Speaking with folks at a coffee shop in San Diego during his Prop 30 tour, Brown asked whether they even knew about the measure.

Several patrons did not.

The governor followed up with a telling question: “Do you watch TV?”

When one woman in the group responded that she didn’t, Brown – as reported by The Los Angeles Times – “seemed exasperated.” He fired back: “That’s the problem. How do you reach the non-TV voter?”

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In a popular appearance on CNN’s “GPS” program last fall, arch-Keynesian economist Paul Krugman wondered whether a possible route to greater government spending would be to concoct a story about an imminent Martian invasion: “If we discovered that space aliens were planning to attack and we needed a massive buildup to counter the space alien threat and really inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that, this slump would be over in 18 months. And then if we discovered, oops, we made a mistake, there aren’t any aliens, we’d be better”.

Amongst the myriad ethical, political, and economic problems with this proposal, is the very simple fact that thinkers like Krugman are never around when it’s time to dismantle his imagined “Department of Earth-Land Security”. As Ronald Reagan quipped, “a government bureau is the closest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

The recent machinations over the discovery of $54 million in “hidden assets” at the California Department of Parks and Recreation (which oversees the Golden State’s public parks turn the Princeton prof’s scenario on its head. The department, which was tasked by Governor Jerry Brown with closing 70 of its 278 parks last fall, worked with Marin County Assemblyman Jared Huffman to craft AB 42 – a measure signed in to law by the governor – which eased regulations in operations agreements between local civic organizations and individual parks.

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