Saturday, October 18, 2008

ACORN in a nutshell: tempest in a teapot

"We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama's relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." – John McCain

I was frankly disappointed to see McCain resort to this topic in the debates the other night. I was hoping he would show some leadership on this one. In the previous week, he had shown himself capable of pushing back against some of the uglier reflexive demonizing in his campaign, but with ACORN he seems prepared to go with the flow, the flowing effluent.

As Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian points out, "The charges against ACORN have grown more pointed with McCain's slide in the opinion polls" —and there may be some sense that this kind of controversy will serve to stir his base and cast just a bit more doubt on Obama for some. This has already been a favorite topic of speculation for a certain species of speculators. Rush Limbaugh has a theory that Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers and ACORN have all been working together with Obama in a secret plot to hate this country and inflict their deliberate minority poverty on an unsuspecting nation.

As John McCain himself said the other night, every campaign has it's fringe elements.

But with McCain raising the "fabric of democracy" as an issue himself at the debate, and people like John Danforth, a former Senator and UN ambassador, speaking up about the prospect of "a tainted election" —as Goldenberg reports —the issue goes mainstream.

ACORN is a nationwide organization that refers to itself as the country's "largest grassroots community organization of low- and moderate-income people" and this year a major focus has been on voter registration. They've employed thousands of canvassers across the country, operating in every state in their registration drives, and since 2004 they have registered 1.7 million voters.

The problem is press reports keep surfacing of problem registrations: In Nevada, canvassers submitted the names of members of the Dallas Cowboys football team and Mickey Mouse as new voters. In Indiana, they put in the name of a local restaurant - Jimmy John. In Ohio, one man registered 73 times. In Missouri, 10 registrations were submitted in the name of a dead woman.

And these reports are now being received with howls of indignation: "We can't allow leftist groups like ACORN to steal this election," Sarah Palin said in a fundraising email just this week.

But there's another problem, too, with this concern for "the fabric of our democracy" and fears that our election is about to be "stolen" —you see the vast majority of these "fraudulent" voter registrations have come to light —because ACORN reported them. You see, as it turns out, when you arm thousands of young people with clipboards, ball point pens and forms, pay them minimum wage and send them out into poor neighborhoods to register voters, you get a certain amount of the registrations back under the name I. P. Freeley and Holden McGroyne, et cetera.

The organization's legal responsibility upon receiving completed registration forms from a canvasser is to forward them to election officials for action, with questionable or incomplete registrations flagged for attention. In the recent "Nevada Incident" that involved a dramatic shutdown of ACORN offices, it turns out ACORN had been identifying potentially fraudulent voter applications over a period of ten months and had "pleaded" with state election officials to take the problem seriously.

In late September they finally received a subpoena requesting information on 15 employees they had previously reported to the state themselves. More than a week after they had supplied the requested records on these problem employees, the Secretary of State's Office made headlines (and blog fodder) with their "shutdown of ACORN for voter fraud."

ACORN's Bertha Lewis put it this way:

"Today's raid by the Secretary of State's Office is a stunt that serves no useful purpose other than discredit our work registering Nevadans and distracting us from the important work ahead of getting every eligible voter to the polls."

The sad fact of the matter is that voter registration efforts all too frequently become the object of maneuver rather than cooperation. Mutual suspicion about motives are the all too frequent theme, as one side works to expand registration rolls in demographically targeted areas and the other cages and curbs under the pretext of protecting the "integrity" of the vote.

There's one fact we should consider as this issue of supposed voter fraud becomes another distraction from the actual election issues. Mickey Mouse can apply to be registered in every precinct in the country. He might even slip by and get himself registered in a few places. It ain't "voter fraud" until the "The Big Rat" (who McCain himself jokingly admitted the other night, probably votes Republican) —until Mickey himself actually votes. And that ain't likely.

The Brennan Center for Justice notes in a recent comprehensive study that “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."

Lightning does strike though. So I suppose it's no surprise when you find the GOP trying to make it rain. There's always that hope of brewing a teapot tempest.

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