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Candidates Are Waging Battles on Two Fronts

In addition to running against one another, incumbent Bill Jones and challenger Michela Alioto work to get residents to register and vote.


SACRAMENTO — For Republican incumbent Bill Jones and Democratic challenger Michela Alioto, the campaign to win election as California secretary of state is only half the battle.

The other half, both candidates for the state's chief election post agree, is persuading millions of eligible voters to register and cast ballots.

More than 20 million Californians are eligible to vote, but only 14.6 million are registered. Far fewer actually cast ballots.

As one possible remedy, Alioto suggests trying out multi-day or weekend elections so that voting will be more convenient for busy Californians. She also proposes same-day registration and voting, and even online voting, if proper safeguards can be developed.

Jones says that in his first term, he has conducted unprecedented outreach programs, and that more than 3 million voters were registered or re-registered because they moved or changed parties. He also campaigned to rid the active voter files of ineligible people, eliminating 500,000 names--people who had died, or were underage or criminals.

In a second term, Jones promises, he would devote even more attention to young people and minority populations.

"I won't be satisfied until we have 100% voter participation," said the 48-year-old Jones, a Fresno-area cattle rancher and politician.

Although choosing a California secretary of state may not rate as the No. 1 issue on the Nov. 3 ballot, Jones said that he has elevated his office's profile by aggressively recruiting new voters, vigorously clearing the voter rolls of deadwood and pursuing election fraud.

"We have revolutionized our agency," said Jones, who served 14 years in the state Assembly, including a stint as GOP floor leader, before being elected to the statewide post in 1994.

His opponent, Alioto, who energetically campaigns from a wheelchair, has never served in elective office. But her last name is synonymous with Democratic politics in San Francisco, where her grandfather served as mayor from 1968 to 1976.

A Los Angeles Times poll last month found Alioto leading Jones 30% to 28% among registered voters statewide, but Jones leading Alioto 34% to 29% among those likely to vote.

Paralyzed from the waist down by a skiing accident when she was 13, Alioto said she has experienced firsthand the lesson that "there are people in our community who have to fight a lot harder to exercise their right to vote than most."

Alioto graduated from UCLA and worked with disabled constituencies during President Clinton's 1992 campaign. Later, she served for 2 1/2 years as a domestic policy issues staffer for Vice President Al Gore.

"I'm not an apathetic person, never have been. I was passing out literature for Ronald Reagan when I was in the sixth grade," she said, adding quickly with a laugh, "I've changed my ways."

In 1995, Alioto returned to California, not to her native San Francisco, but to the Napa Valley, where she invested in a wine business, established residence and ran for Congress. She lost.

It was during the House campaign that Alioto's own voting record became controversial--an issue which Jones is now hammering her on.

In the earlier campaign, it was disclosed that Alioto, although she was registered in San Francisco, had not voted in the 1994 California primary or general elections.

Newspapers at the time reported that Alioto gave various explanations for her failure to vote, including a mix-up in absentee ballots while she was working in Washington. She also conceded, "I made a mistake."

"She takes a great deal of interest in [being] secretary of state, but she chose not to vote until she ran for Congress," Jones said. "You have to lead by example."

Jones said he believes he has voted in every election since he was old enough to vote. "This [job] is about encouraging people to participate in the process; to do that, you have to do it yourself," he said.

But Alioto, who denies charges that she started voting only when she ran for election in 1996, insisted she needs no lectures from Jones on voting.

At UCLA, Alioto recalled, she received voting materials from Los Angeles election officials which indicated that her polling place was not accessible to voters in wheelchairs.

She said she called and asked to be redirected to an accessible voting spot, but was told by a clerk that "we don't redirect people. . . . I'm sorry, that is not my problem. That is your problem."

Angered, Alioto said she showed up at the precinct poll anyway. "I figured, I'll get on the floor and crawl up the stairs," she said.

As it turned out, Alioto said, the voting material was wrong and the poll was accessible to her wheelchair. (The law has since been changed to require voting places to be open to people in wheelchairs.)

"I guarantee that Mr. Jones has never had to fight his way into the voting place," she said.

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