State Grapples With Possible Misuse of Computer Voter Files : Information: Officials react to allegations involving Illinois firm and cite frustration about lack of policy.


No sooner had new Secretary of State Bill Jones taken office last month and started his quest to eliminate any hint of fraud from the elections process than he stumbled on two surprises: the possible misuse of voter registration records for commercial purposes through computers and the knowledge that he could do little about it.

Jones learned that personal data involving more than 1 million California voters may have found its way into the computers of an Illinois-based company that provides consumer information to direct-mail businesses.

In California and most other states, it is illegal to use information taken from voter registration records for commercial purposes. The penalty in California is 50 cents each time an individual voter's record is used commercially. With 14.7 million people registered to vote in the state last year, fines could conceivably total millions of dollars.

Probing further, Jones said he discovered that there was little he could do because there were no policy or procedures in place for his office to identify and track down such computer-based cases.

To help find a solution, Jones and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, both Republicans, recently appointed a team of specialists from the offices of the secretary of state and Department of Justice to investigate issues related to possible high-tech misuse of voter files as well as other, more conventional forms of voter fraud.

The problem Jones faces is that the same law making commercial use of voter rolls illegal also allows the same data to be used legitimately for political, educational, governmental and journalistic purposes. That access allows those bent on breaking the law to do so with a simple stroke on a computer keyboard without anyone's knowledge.

An authorized first user of computerized voter lists may transfer them to other users for legitimate purposes. In turn, those users may transfer the lists electronically to still others. Along the way, Jones said, the records may be turned over to commercial users.

The voter registration files contain a wealth of personal information prized by political operatives in charting campaign strategy. The files include a voter's marital status, date and place of birth, occupation, residence address, mailing address, party affiliation and optional telephone number.

Entrepreneurs can use the information to develop consumer profiles and then tailor their sales pitches. Those in the highly competitive and booming direct-mail business already obtain individual consumer information from both private and unrestricted public sources.

"It turns out there may be no way to track the information once it goes beyond the first user," Jones said. "If someone does misuse it, how do I go about to resolve it? You have to be able to track it down."

Jones, a rancher and former Assembly Republican leader from Fresno who campaigned last year on a platform of rooting out any hint of voter fraud, said he also fears that computer technology may outpace the ability of state government to catch those who misuse voter files.

"When you start stripping (information) off the tapes, then anything is possible," Jones said. "This is new territory for us to handle from a policy standpoint."

Democrat Tony Miller, the former acting secretary of state who was aware of a possible problem involving computer misuse of California voting files last summer, agreed that technology challenges the traditional paper-trail techniques of investigation.

"They're not looking for gummed labels any more," Miller said. "(Voter records) are zipping along in cyberspace. They are very difficult to measure and audit."

Computer tapes of the files are compiled by local elections officials and are sold or rented to legitimate customers for a fee. But under the law their use is restricted to non-commercial purposes as a protection against exploitation.

Jones learned from a Wall Street Journal story that the ages of 1.6 million Californians, some of them reportedly taken directly from voter registration files, had found their way into a 1991 database inventory of Metromail Corp., a nationwide company that provides consumer information to direct-marketing businesses.

The alleged improper use of California voter records for commercial purposes was cited in a breach of contract lawsuit filed in Washington in 1992 involving Aristotle Industries Inc., a political information software company, and Metromail.

Aristotle contended that information from California voter records, specifically ages, was used in a Metromail telephone survey of the ice cream habits of consumers. Aristotle charged--and Metromail denied--that the survey misused the voter records for commercial purposes and asked for a legal opinion from the California secretary of state.

Without taking a position in the litigation, the secretary of state's office said in a formal opinion in July that circumstances such as those described by Aristotle would violate the law.

In seeking the opinion, Washington-based Aristotle attorney J. Blair Richardson Jr. suggested that if California were to enforce the law against commercial use of voter records, it would "obviously benefit the state's treasury."

Dave Tabolt, a spokesman for Metromail, on Monday reiterated Metromail's contention that "we did not violate the law." He acknowledged that some information had been derived from voter files, but had not been used commercially and subsequently was purged from the company's database.

Miller said recently that for a variety of reasons, he took no action to investigate Aristotle's charges last summer.

Miller said his efforts at the time were focused on the "more serious problems of voter fraud and registration fraud." He said it also was unclear whether he had the regulatory authority to enforce the law, which is an area that Jones' investigators are expected to examine.

Jones told The Times that, for the time being at least, he does not intend to involve himself in issues raised by the Aristotle-Metromail fight.

"It is not our position necessarily to get involved in a (private) legal case," he said. "I made it a rule, as I had done in the Legislature, to try to stay out of cases that are open in court and in process."

Both Jones and Miller said they know of no other cases of alleged high-tech misuse of voter files for commercial purposes. They agreed, though, that the lawsuit highlights the potential for such abuse.

Jones said he wants a mechanism in place to track down those who break the law and will develop a plan based on recommendations of the special team of investigators.

"If we are going to prosecute and get tough, I have to have a procedure in effect," Jones said. "Threats are really empty unless people believe you are serious."

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