SAN FRANCISCO – Secretary of State Kevin Shelley (search) guided California through a surprisingly trouble-free recall election last year and became a national champion to voting rights activists when he sounded the alarm about the potential for fraud and other problems with electronic voting machines.
But on the eve of this year's general election, he's been mired in scandal, accused of taking questionable campaign contributions and misusing federal election funds. Now, his critics are wondering whether the 48-year-old Democrat can be trusted to manage a presidential election in the nation's most populous state.
The deepening controversy has prompted the chairman of the nation's election oversight commission to warn that California could lose $170 million in federal election funds.
"We have information that suggests that the state may not be just behind, but be completely delinquent in addressing some of the mandates," Election Assistance Commission (search) Chairman DeForest B. Soaries Jr. said Wednesday, citing failures to fulfill federal requirements for boosting voter education programs and training poll workers.
Meanwhile, election officials are scrambling to process the record high number of voter registrations that have flooded the counties this year.
"People are uneasy as it is," said Brad Clark, the Alameda County registrar. "To have the state's chief election officer under investigation for so many things, the new revelations every day become a diversion."
Shelley aide Tony Wilson said the secretary of state's office is committed to helping counties run the general election smoothly. A message left after business hours at Shelley's campaign office was not immediately returned Thursday.
Last year, Shelley oversaw one of the most extraordinary political melodramas in the nation's history — the recall of Gov. Gray Davis and the election of action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace him.
Shelley also became the nation's first secretary of state to require all electronic voting machines to produce paper receipts by 2006, delighting voting rights activists.
He imposed a series of new requirements on registrars in the 12 counties using the machines this November to reduce the likelihood of fraud, errors and other problems. The move angered county officials, many of whom accused him of political grandstanding, but all complied.
Since then, Shelley has been accused of accepting a campaign check in his state office and of taking other campaign contributions laundered through a state grant he secured for a political supporter. The FBI was investigating.
County elections officials insist they will be able to carry out the Nov. 2 balloting with a minimum of disruption.
"The ongoing investigations of Mr. Shelley are not distracting county elections officials from accomplishing our legal and administrative responsibilities," said Los Angeles County registrar Conny McCormack, who heads the state's association of county registrars.
With Shelley sinking under the weight of the crisis, his critics are piling on with accusations of missed opportunities for voter education and poll worker training. They say he sat on millions of dollars in federal grants until July — much too close to the November election to be useful.
"To drop it on us at last minute, when we desperately needed it to train precinct officers, is just wrong," said Candace Grubbs, the Butte County registrar.
Shelley aide Tony Wilson acknowledged that it "would have been nice to get the money earlier." Still, Wilson said, Shelley plans to work with the counties to ensure a smooth election in November.