The ACORN Controversy: A Tough Nut to Crack

| Tue Oct. 14, 2008 4:14 PM EDT

For years, conservatives have grumbled about voter registration efforts aimed at low-income citizens, particularly those mounted by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), claiming these campaigns are rampant with fraud and corruption that benefits Democrats. On Tuesday, this low-grade battle became a headline-making clash, as the McCain-Palin campaign blasted ACORN and the Obama-Biden campaign and ACORN responded in kind.

At a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, the McCain campaign put the chairmen of its "Honest and Open Election Committee," former Republican Senators John Danforth and Warren Rudman, front and center before the national media. The pair asserted that the election is in danger of being compromised, accusing ACORN of submitting thousands of phony voter registrations nationwide. They noted that they had sent a letter to the Obama campaign, Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean, and top state election officials proposing the creation of joint election observation teams. "Each campaign would list every precinct where either fears there is a potential for voter intimidation, fraud, or mistrust of the tabulation process on Election Day," the letter reads. "Each campaign would be responsible for recruiting a volunteer for each named precinct. The Republican and Democratic volunteers would work jointly as an observation team." (It is already routine for campaigns and parties to send election observers, often trained lawyers, to polling locations on Election Day. Representatives of local media outlets are commonly on hand as well.)

Danforth and Rudman's letter ends, "Let's talk." The Obama campaign isn't interested. It points out that the campaigns already dealt with this issue in an exchange of letters in September that generated little media attention. At that time, the McCain folks notified the Obama campaign of its joint observation teams idea and a week later the Obama campaign responded harshly: "This seems a starkly political maneuver to deflect attention from the reality of the suppression strategies pursued by national, state and Republican party committees." Nothing further occurred.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

At the press conference, Danforth and Rudman suggested that ACORN was engaging in fraudulent voter registration on a massive scale — they mentioned 5,700 rejected ACORN registrations in Philadelphia, 1,400 more in New Mexico, reports of individuals registering to vote dozens of times, and so on. Senator Rudman said that he does not know what ACORN, which works with low-income communities and is a known sympathizer with liberal causes, hopes to accomplish, but that their actions call the integrity of the election into question. They repeated the charges on the cable news networks after the press conference.

The Senators didn't quite accuse Barack Obama of orchestrating massive voter fraud, but they came close. "Senator Obama has a special responsibility to rein in ACORN," said Danforth. The campaign pointed to Obama's connections to the group: Obama worked with ACORN briefly while a community organizer, did minor legal work for it after law school, and distributed funds to it while a board member of the Chicago-based Woods Fund. Further, the Obama campaign paid a subsidiary of ACORN over $800,000 to help with get-out-the-vote efforts (not voter registration) in the Democratic primary. ACORN takes pride in primarily registering low-income people, people of color, and young people. All three groups are major parts of Obama's coalition. Together, these facts are enough for many on the right to claim a nationwide conspiracy to steal the election. Practically every conservative group with a mailing list, from the Republican National Committee to the pro-life Family Research Council, has sent an email alerting its supporters to the grave threat ACORN supposedly represents.

Shortly after the McCain press conference ended, ACORN had an opportunity to defend itself. Renting a room just down the hall from the McCain campaign press conference, the group admitted to the press that in the process of registering 1.3 million new voters with the help of 13,000 mostly part-time canvassers, problems have occurred. Most commonly, its representatives said, workers seeking to make a quick buck have inflated their registration totals with duplicate or fictional registrations — thus the report that the Dallas Cowboys roster has allegedly been registered to vote in Nevada. But there is no institutionalized attempt to steal the election, they maintained. In fact, problematic registration forms are flagged by ACORN before they are sent to election officials, who frequently require all forms, legitimate or not, to be handed over to the state in which they were filed. In many of the cases where hundreds or thousands of problematic registration forms were found, ACORN was the first to identify the problem. And, the organization pointed out, those responsible for submitting phony registrations have been fired and in some cases, reported to authorities for possible criminal action.

ACORN officials also pointed out that fraudulent voter registrations do not equal fraudulent votes. Someone registered to vote 72 times can only cast one vote at the polls. (In response, the McCain campaign pointed to vulnerabilities in the absentee voting system, but offered few details.) On this front ACORN was echoed by Demos, a think tank, and Common Cause, a good government advocacy group. The heads of both groups cited studies indicating that very few people try to use a fake name to vote. Voter fraud at the polls, they said, is a minor problem compared to voter intimidation, intentional voter misinformation campaigns, and barriers to voting commonly set up in conservative states, such as Voter ID laws. The Obama campaign, in a conference call held hours after the dueling press conferences, reiterated these points. Campaign manager David Plouffe called the McCain campaign's focus on ACORN a "strategic and cynical ploy… to sow confusion in a deliberate attempt to decrease turnout."

ACORN's leadership has sent a letter to Senators Danforth and Rudman requesting a sit-down meeting to address the controversy. It mirrored the letter Danforth and Rudman sent to the Obama campaign. The McCain campaign has a political interest in declining the invitation. After all, why would it put to bed a controversy that has the ability to energize its base in the final weeks of the election?

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.