ACORN under fire for nationwide voter registration activities

A national group that registered tens of thousands of new voters in Colorado is under fire in several states for using fake names to sign up voters.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) has been charged with dropping off at least 10,000 invalid voter applications in a dozen states, according to news reports. But ACORN officials say that GOP operatives — and John McCain specifically — are fanning nonexistent flames. And while the group’s Colorado operations are in the clear, it was mischaracterized as “under investigation today” by Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave during a debate last week with Democratic challenger Betsy Markey.

This election cycle ACORN conducted the largest voter registration drive in the nation, spending $18 million to sign up 1.3 million voters in 21 states. In Colorado alone, organizers logged over 65,000 voters, many of them minority and low-income who demographically tend to vote Democratic.

“America suffers from an imbalance of voices when it comes to moderate and low-income people,” Brian Kettenring, an ACORN spokesman in Florida, said during a media conference call last week. “It is well known that the voter registration participation rate in these communities is lower than it should be and lower than the population as a whole. A lot of ACORN’s work seeks to address that.”

But along with increased voter registration comes the possibility of erroneously or fraudulently filled out forms. An ACORN office in Las Vegas was raided by Nevada state authorities last week after the secretary of state fielded reports of falsified voter lists. And in Lake County, Ind., election officials said they received thousands of forms with identical signatures that they plan to turn over to prosecutors for a possible investigation.

ACORN leaders have defended their operations, saying that the organization does not pay circulators per registration, which removes any incentive to fake applications. When the group comes across a suspicious form, workers flag it for county clerks to see rather than throw it away, since many states request that voter registration drives turn in every single form. These precautions, organizers say, have backfired.

“The fact we are now hearing so many stories and allegations of voter fraud is an example of the system working,” said Michael Slater, the executive director of Project Vote, a civic engagement group that partners with ACORN on voter work, during the call with reporters. “These are reports on applications ACORN found and flagged. They have been building a record that is now being used against them in the media.”

McCain recently released an attack ad against Barack Obama linking him to ACORN, a group that, the ad claims, engaged in “intimidation tactics” in Chicago and “massive voter fraud” on a national scale. Obama once served as the director for Project Vote in Chicago. However, McCain also has ties to the organization — the Arizona senator spoke at an ACORN-sponsored immigration rally in Miami in 2006.

In Colorado, meanwhile, the group has largely stayed out of the limelight. ACORN drama has been confined to a singular, semifactual instance last week when Musgrave slammed the organization during her debate with Markey. The 4th Congressional District debate moderator asked a question about the federal financial crisis, and Musgrave linked ACORN to the bailout legislation.

“Both of those pieces of legislation had slush funds for ACORN,” she said. “If you want to look at voter fraud, ACORN is under investigation today in this state of Colorado. … They are creative in the ways that they have people register to vote, but I believe they are getting caught up with.”

The Musgrave campaign did not return a call seeking clarification on the congresswoman’s remarks, but the claim that ACORN is under investigation in Colorado is certainly news to Ben Hanna, the group’s state director.

“I am not sure what she is referring to,” he says. “We don’t have problems with our drives here.”

On Monday, Secretary of State’s Office spokesman Rich Coolidge did not respond to a request regarding ACORN’s standing in the state, and neither did Denver County Clerk spokesman Alton Dillard. But the group received a clean bill of health in an article in the Rocky Mountain News last week.

“They updated us on what they’re doing for training and to enhance quality control during their voter registration drive,” Dillard told the News.

And as far as the ACORN slush-fund issue goes, the group was never mentioned in the financial bailout legislation. Republicans, however, expressed concern that money allocated to an affordable housing trust fund would be funneled to ACORN through state and local governments, which turned out to be irrelevant when the affordable housing piece was stripped from the legislation.

“On the slush-fund nonsense, that is getting to be a tired Republican rallying cry. It is completely false,” says Hanna.

Hanna says that for now, Colorado ACORN will focus on making sure that the voters it registered are actually entered into the system. The organization plans to mail out around 2,500 letters to voters in Denver, Adams and Arapahoe counties whose applications were deemed incomplete by county clerks.

He’s not worried, he says, about fake names showing up on registration forms as the clerks continue to log applications this week.

“The application gets three independent eye checks,” Hanna says. “In our office we didn’t see anything like that.”

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Naomi Zeveloff

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