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ORANGE COUNTY ELECTION INQUIRY

O.C. Probe Puts Jones, Reformist Agenda in Spotlight

Profile: Secretary of state is former GOP Assembly leader and wrote three-strikes law but remains unknown to most Californians.

March 15, 1997|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — When Republican Bill Jones mounted a successful campaign for secretary of state in 1994, he promised to crack down on voter fraud. Democrats said it was campaign-trail bluster, that problems were few.

Now, armed with what he says is new evidence of unlawful voting by noncitizens in Orange County, Jones may have won a measure of political vindication.

But he isn't gloating.

"If everything would come out the best for me, personally, we'd find no fraud," Jones said in an interview Friday. "That would reinforce the system. We could go tell the public the system is totally free from fraud. Go out and vote!"

Aw-shucks sound bites aside, there's no denying that the swirling voter fraud controversy in Orange County has thrust Jones to center stage on an issue that is attracting statewide attention.

It's not a spot this 47-year-old son of the Central Valley is accustomed to.

Jones spent a dozen years in the Legislature, including a short stint as the Assembly's GOP leader, and co-authored the popular three-strikes sentencing law. But he was largely unknown to many California voters when he rode a GOP landslide to the secretary of state's office 2 1/2 years ago.

Since then, he has set about pushing a Republican reformer's agenda and has made the pursuit of voter fraud a top priority.

He got legislative approval to add four new investigators to the fraud division, manpower that has come in handy during the Orange County probe.

He also is championing legislation this year that would require voters to display some form of identification at polling places on election day.

Jones also has worked to aid county election officials in keeping track of "deadwood" voters who have moved or died by changing voter registration cards to include a driver's license number. In addition, he is setting up a statewide database so counties can more easily keep track of voters who have moved.

On other fronts, Jones has sponsored outreach programs to improve voter participation. But he has met with resistance from lawmakers over efforts to require electronic filing of campaign finance records, a move that would improve public access via the Internet. Jones vows to press anew in the Legislature this year.

Even his Democrat foe from 1994, former acting Secretary of State Tony Miller, concedes that Jones is "moving in the right direction," though he faults the state's top elections official on a variety of fronts.

"I think on an A-to-F grade, he's a C, he's average," Miller said. "I don't think he's done any serious damage. He just hasn't done that much good."

Miller's biggest complaint is Jones' failure to support Proposition 208, the campaign finance reform measure approved by voters last November. Jones counters that he backs contribution limits but believed Proposition 208 went too far.

One of the state's more mild-mannered politicians, Jones doesn't hide a healthy ambition to move up the Capitol food chain. He announced earlier this week that he was ruling out a run for U.S. Senate next year but makes no secret of a desire to one day become governor.

The growing Orange County voting fraud investigation could end up proving a springboard to that end. But it didn't always seem so.

When allegations were raised after the November election, Jones was criticized by Orange County conservatives angry that he wasn't sending investigators in right away.

Boosters say the slow approach was quintessential Jones, who occasionally doffs his suit and tie to work on his family's 1,000-acre farm outside Fresno.

"I consider him a gentleman farmer," said Mark Thompson, an Orange County political consultant who has worked with Jones in the Legislature. "He's an extremely cautious and methodical man."

Critics such as Miller suggest that even if allegations in Orange County prove true, Jones won't have won anything except perhaps the propaganda war.

"Even if the worst fears down there materialize, it doesn't seem to be a widespread problem," Miller said. "There's just no substantiation of his allegations that California's system is riddled with fraud."

Jones argues that voter fraud reforms should be viewed as a "good government" effort, not one that deserves partisan bickering. He believes most people are honest, but says reforms are needed to guard against those who might cheat.

"We have an honor system," Jones said. "You know what? Not everyone is honorable."

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