[editor’s note, by Steven D] I shortened the title to make commenting on this important diary easier.

Scaling the Mountains and Molehills of the “Voter Registration Fraud” Controversy

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns and Michael McDunnah

With a constant barrage of allegations against ACORN and other voter registration organizations coming from the McCain-Palin campaign and the Republican National Committee in recent weeks, it’s worthwhile to take a look back at this ongoing war between partisan forces on the right and community based voter registration drives–a war that has largely been fought in the media and nowhere else, and which has threatened to drown out real issues in these crucial weeks before the election.
On October 6 ACORN and Project Vote held a press briefing call in which they announced the completion of their 2007-2008 voter registration drive, a massive 21 state effort that succeeded in registering over 1.3 million low-income and minority people, an apparent record for any single nonpartisan voter registration drive in history. This exceptional news, however, has been nearly lost in a tempest-in-a-teacup brewed by Republicans around a relatively small number of faulty or falsified voter registration applications handed in through the effort.

On October 2, the RNC held a press briefing call attacking the organization. Republican National Committee chief counsel Sean Cairncross called ACORN a “quasi-criminal organization” that is “engaged in systematic fraud and attempts to undermine our electoral system.” The RNC, however, did not produce any evidence to support these allegations, other than a handful of problem cards that ACORN itself has identified and alerted election officials about. A small number of ACORN canvassers have been fired for falsifying cards–not in any effort to subvert the election by enabling illegal voting (which is incredibly rare and incredibly difficult), but simply in an effort to get paid for doing work they didn’t feel like actually doing. ACORN has encouraged, and offered to cooperate with, investigations and prosecutions against these workers.

ACORN’s encouragement and cooperation, however, has not prevented the organization from being the subject of politically motivated attacks. In Nevada, ACORN had already turned over extensive documentation of problem registrations turned in by former workers, and had been working with election officials and law enforcement for weeks when law enforcement nevertheless decided to stage a highly publicized raid of ACORN’s Nevada office that occurred on October 7, the day after the announcement of the drive’s success. (It was highly publicized, in part, because news crews and photographers just happened to be invited.) ACORN has called the raid a stunt, and interestingly, the very affidavit used to support the search warrant documents the extensive quality control procedures ACORN uses to guard against voter fraud, as well as ACORN’s thorough cooperation with law-enforcement officials.

ACORN and Project Vote launched back in a news conference call on October 10. “This is the third election cycle in a row where we’ve seen partisan interests take the same issue–which is canvassers trying to defraud ACORN by not doing their work and instead fabricating applications–and trying to exaggerate that and turn it into an argument that there is `widespread fraudulent voting’ going on,” said Project Vote executive director Michael Slater. “These allegations have been debunked now in several election cycles, and we’ll find by the end of this election cycle they’ll be debunked as well.”

ACORN spokesperson Scott Levenson also made the point that the term “voter fraud” does not apply to these cases. “There haven’t been any cases where anyone even suggested that someone attempted to vote under these circumstances,” said Levenson. “There are no votes that are really in question here.”

Another “Scare Tactic” to Prevent Voter Participation

So what’s the motive behind the attacks? At the Huffington Post on October 10, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) said “the real reason is obvious: Because ACORN, along with Project Vote, just announced that they had successfully registered 1.3 million poor people this year.” Calling ACORN “one of the strongest, hardest-working, most dedicated community organizations” in the United States, Jackson said “thank you, ACORN. Thank you, Project Vote, for taking our democracy seriously enough to try to include 1.3 million more poor people in a more perfect union.”

On the same day election law attorney Rick Hasen at the Huffington Post said, “For the last three elections, Republicans have been ramping up cries of voter fraud as a way of undermining the legitimacy of the election results should they not turn out in their favor and providing a reason for strict voting purges that are likely to remove many Democratic voters from the rolls.”

Greg Gordon of McClatchy Newspapers concurred, and helped put these most recent attacks in context. “Republicans have leveled similar allegations against the coalition known as ACORN in every election since at least 2000, but they have yet to produce proof that the group poses a threat to election integrity,” Gordon wrote.

“I’m astounded that this issue is being trotted out again,” former U.S. attorney David Iglesias recently told TPMmuckraker. “Based on what I saw in 2004 and 2006, it’s a scare tactic.” In 2007, the myth of voter fraud was exposed during the U.S. Attorneys scandal, which propelled inquiries into the firing of at least nine federal prosecutors, including Iglesias. Iglesias says he received political pressure to bring charges of voter fraud against ACORN in New Mexico despite the fact that there was no evidence of any criminal activity.

On Tuesday, October 14 the confrontation between ACORN and the McCain-Palin campaign almost literally came to a head with dueling press conferences at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Speaking for the McCain-Palin campaign, former senators John Danforth and Warren Rudman once again raised the same old concerns about ACORN’s voter registration work, without citing any new evidence. Immediately following, ACORN held a press conference across the hall, where ACORN leaders were joined by leaders from the voting rights groups Common Cause and Demos, as well as by actual voters to testify to the importance of voter registration.

“We have an opportunity this year,” said Miles Rapoport of Demos. “People by the hundreds of thousands and millions are anxious and eager to register to vote and be part of it. I think the criticism of ACORN is a diversionary issue that should not be allowed to cloud what is happening this year, which is an extraordinary flowering of democracy. ACORN is to be applauded for encouraging that, not criticized, and I am proud to stand with them.”

The following day, October 15, ACORN and other advocacy leaders–including leaders of the NAACP and People for the American Way (PFAW)–held another press conference in which the allegations were placed in their proper context: as a civil rights issue, and part of a long history of attempts to use accusations of voter fraud to suppress the votes of low-income and minority voters. “This latest attack on ACORN follows a sorry pattern, played out in election after election,” said Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP. “Republicans have practiced an assortment of subtle and overt methods to suppress and smother voter registration and turnout…Ever since they first practiced voter suppression, they’ve yelled, `Voter fraud!’ ” The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights also provided a statement of support, and PFAW President Kathryn Kolbert said McCain “should be ready to disavow the organized effort his party has made to subvert the democratic process.”

“Those who are stirring the `voter fraud’ pot don’t want to talk about voter suppression and intimidation,” said Kolbert. “They want to use the code word of `voter fraud’ as cover for their real objective of voter suppression. It’s a sad day when a campaign’s success strategy is dependent upon keeping voters away from the polls,” she said.

Far from “disavowing” the attacks, however, McCain himself took the baseless allegations to a new level on October 15 in the final presidential debate. McCain lashed out at ACORN, attempting to tie his opponent Barack Obama to the controversy. “We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama’s relationship with ACORN,” said McCain, “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.”

Senator Obama quickly dismissed both the charges against ACORN and his own “connection” to the organization: “ACORN is a community organization…they were paying people to go out and register folks, and apparently some of the people who were out there didn’t really register people, they just filled out a bunch of names.” While defending ACORN, Obama also clarified his own ties to the organization, which partisans have grossly exaggerated. “The only involvement I’ve had with ACORN was I represented them, alongside the U.S. Justice Department, in making Illinois implement a motor voter law that helped people get registered at DMVs,” said Obama.

Key State Officials Report No Problems With ACORN Voter Registration Efforts

Even election officials in key states have said that they detected no problems with ACORN’s voter registration drives. According to Aaron Deslatte of the Orlando Sentinel, election officials in Florida’s Seminole and Orange counties stated that they did not suspect the bad cards collected to be a scheme to defraud the election. Furthermore, “Both Gov. Charlie Crist and Secretary of State Kurt Browning have said they don’t mind ACORN being active in Florida’s election process. When reporters asked Crist if there was a problem with ACORN here, he said, ‘No.'”

And the Miami Herald reports that “Crist’s Republican Secretary of State, Kurt Browning, said he doesn’t think ACORN is committing systematic voter fraud…Like ACORN spokesmen, Browning says the false voter registration forms could be blamed on unethical canvassers or on citizens who themselves fill out fictitious voter cards.” About the exaggerated claims of voter fraud, Crist is quoted as saying “As we’re coming into the closing days of any campaign, there are some who enjoy chaos.”

In Missouri, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Republican St. Louis elections director Scott Leiendecker says that ACORN’s registration efforts have been problem-free this year. “Everything’s been on the up and up,” he says.

In Newsday, Cathy L. Richter Geier, the Republican commissioner of the Suffolk County Board of Elections in New York, told the reporter “We have not seen anything out of the ordinary.”

In an interview with Democracy Now, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner said she’s “had nothing but good experiences working with” ACORN.

In Texas, according to the Houston Chronicle, the Harris county registrar reports that “there is no evidence of intentional manipulation of the voter rolls here,” and a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office said that “no problems involving ACORN have been brought to their attention.”

The Press Sees Through the Partisan Attack

Putting the number of bad registration cards discovered among the 1.3 million into context, the Baltimore Sun editorializes that “any operation that big is bound to produce errors, but the irregularities cited by GOP critics are minuscule compared with the number of valid applications. ACORN hasn’t been charged with violating any law, and it says it has fired workers caught trying to game the system with forged or fraudulent documents.”

“Real voter fraud – the intentional corruption of the electoral process by a voter – happens at the polls, not when new voters try to register,” the Sun writes. “So far, ACORN’s accusers haven’t come up with convincing evidence to back up their charges.”

There is an important difference between this and previous election cycles, however: the GOP’s strategy is not working. In previous years the press didn’t catch on to the spurious nature of the attacks until long after the election, and so media coverage became an inadvertent part of a successful strategy to create an unfounded specter of voter fraud and perpetuate the myth that more extreme restrictions were necessary to prevent illegal voting. This year, fewer and fewer reputable news outlets seem to be buying what the GOP is selling.

While some histrionic stories have appeared on Fox News (which has mentioned ACORN more often in the past week than it has mentioned either of the vice-presidential candidates) and CNN–both of which have done stories that have been debunked by independent sources including the watchdog group Media Matters–other reporters and editorial boards have been vigilant in getting to the truth (and the true motive) of the allegations.

In an editorial in the Capital Times (Madison, WI) on October 10 entitled “GOP Battles the Spread of Democracy,” Joel McNally says:

“Republicans have another underlying motive for attacking ACORN. It is an organization that engages in that dreaded community organizing. It actually tries to give a voice to the poor and most vulnerable among us…Clearly, organizations like ACORN are on the front lines of promoting democracy in this country while Republicans are trying to stop its spread.”

And the Kansas City Star‘s Friday editorial says:

“Let’s look at the facts. The single most important one: Voter registration fraud — where bogus names, addresses or signatures of potential voters are submitted to election authorities — is far different from actual voter fraud, where unqualified people show up and try to vote…

“So why all the caterwauling from Republicans? The most salient point is that ACORN has registered more than 1.3 million voters this election cycle. Of course many of these people are in demographic groups — minorities, and lower- and middle-income Americans — who tend to vote for Democrats. And many of these people are ready to vote for change…”

In an editorial today the New York Times calls the charges against ACORN “wildly overblown — and intended to hobble ACORN’s efforts”:

“..for all of the McCain campaign’s manufactured fury about vote theft (and similar claims from the Republican Party over the years) there is virtually no evidence — anywhere in the country, going back many elections — of people showing up at the polls and voting when they are not entitled to…

“Meanwhile, Republicans aren’t saying anything about another more serious voter-registration scandal: the fact that about one-third of eligible voters are not registered. The racial gaps are significant and particularly disturbing. According to a study by Project Vote, a voting-rights group, in 2006, 71 percent of eligible whites were registered, compared with 61 percent of blacks, 54 percent of Latinos and 49 percent of Asian-Americans…

“The real threats to the fabric of democracy are the unreasonable barriers that stand in the way of eligible voters casting ballots,” the Times concludes. “That would go a long way toward explaining the GOP’s frenetic attacks on ACORN.”

Finally, today, as reported by Bloomberg, the Obama campaign asked U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey to “add a probe into allegedly false Republican claims of voter fraud to the investigation into the firings of U.S. attorneys.”

In the letter to Mukasey and special prosecutor Nora Dannehy, who is investigating the U.S. attorney firings, Robert Bower, general counsel for Obama for America, says: “The current surge of improper Republican activity must be understood, first and most fundamentally, in context of years of concerted partisan activities to use bogus claims of `vote fraud’ to suppress voting and to influence elections in the eleventh hour by pressuring federal and local officials–including the Justice Department–to investigate and prosecute allegations of fraud where none exists.”

Quick Links:

Minnite, Lorraine. The Politics of Voter Fraud. Project Vote. March 2007.

Hess, Douglass R. “Representational Bias in the 2006 Electorate.” Project Vote. Sept. 2007.


In Other News:

House speaker to push for voter ID – Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – House Speaker Chris Benge says he plans to push for a new law requiring Oklahoma voters to present identification when heading to the polling booth.

Judge declines to halt Georgia’s voter screening – Atlanta Journal Constitution
A federal judge on Thursday allowed the state of Georgia to continue verifying the citizenship of registered voters with a statewide database.

High court rejects GOP bid in Ohio voting dispute – The Gainesville Sun
The Supreme Court sided Friday with Ohio’s top elections official in a dispute with the state Republican Party over voter registrations.

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