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Sunday, October 19, 2008

ACORN Hype is Overblown

Listening to my conservative friends, they are all up in arms about ACORN, arguing that this massive voter fraud will cast doubt on the current election.

Presidential Candidate John McCain fanned those flames with probably the most hyperbolic statement on this campaign during the third debate:
"... 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."
The greatest frauds in voter history?

Has Mr. McCain never read his history books? Does he not understand how elections used to work or shall we say, didn't work.

You have to allow a certain amount of leeway in campaign rhetoric, but even by that standard this is over-the-top and also false.

The greatest resource a voter has access to these days is a variety of Fact Check organizations. I like, they seem to be pretty non-partisan and they go after both sides with equal gusto. Given some of the arguments and claims that have been posted on this board, I recommend some of our readers get acquainted with Fact Check and other means of checking their facts before they repeat campaign rhetoric and rumors.

What I like about FACT CHECK is that they cite their sources as though they were an academic journal--that allows for transparency and review by the reader.

The summary by FactCheck on ACORN is revealing:
"The McCain-Palin campaign accuses ACORN, a community activist group that operates nationwide, of perpetrating "massive voter fraud." It says Obama has “long and deep” ties to the group. We find both claims to be exaggerated. But we also find Obama has understated the extent of his work with the group."
They conclude:
"Neither ACORN nor its employees have been found guilty of, or even charged with, casting fraudulent votes. What a McCain-Palin Web ad calls "voter fraud" is actually voter registration fraud. Several ACORN canvassers have been found guilty of faking registration forms and others are being investigated. But the evidence that has surfaced so far shows they faked forms to get paid for work they didn’t do, not to stuff ballot boxes."
Unfortunately, this is a fairly common phenomena. We had a similar case back in San Luis Obispo when a paid canvasser not only submitted fake registration forms, but harassed people into signing registration forms, did not allow opposition party registrants to register (which is illegal), and used voter information to stalk female co-eds and ask them out on dates.

The big problem with all such enterprises is the fact that the canvassers are paid by the number of registration forms. So the more forms they submit, they more money they got. In San Luis Obispo, a political party was paying the money and they only got paid when people registered that party, not the other party and not independent.

The incentive structure in that case creates part of the problem. Moreover you end up having people who need the money get those jobs rather than committed activists who will be more respectful of the process.

By all accounts this is what happened with ACORN.

Fact Check writes:
"So far ACORN itself has not been officially charged with any fraud. Aside from the heated charges and counter-charges, no evidence has yet surfaced to show that the ACORN employees who submitted fraudulent registration forms intended to pave the way for illegal voting. Rather, they were trying to get paid by ACORN for doing no work. Dan Satterberg, the Republican prosecuting attorney in King County, Wash., where the largest ACORN case to date was prosecuted, said that the indicted ACORN employees were shirking responsibility, not plotting election fraud.

Satterberg: [A] joint federal and state investigation has determined that this scheme was not intended to permit illegal voting.

Instead, the defendants cheated their employer, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (or ACORN), to get paid for work they did not actually perform. ACORN's lax oversight of their own voter registration drive permitted this to happen. ... It was hardly a sophisticated plan: The defendants simply realized that making up names was easier than actually canvassing the streets looking for unregistered voters. ...

[It] appears that the employees of ACORN were not performing the work that they were being paid for, and to some extent, ACORN is a victim of employee theft."
ACORN'S response:
"In its defense, ACORN says that only a few of its 13,000 paid canvassers turned in any faked forms. "[T]here are always some people who want to get paid without really doing the job, or who aim to defraud their employer," the group said in an Oct. 10 statement on its Web site. "Any large department store will have some workers who shoplift."
ACORN also says it cannot simply discard suspicious forms on its own, but is required by law in most states to submit to local election officials all the forms its canvassers bring in. ACORN's Whelan told us that its own legal counsel strongly advises that the group do the same in states that don't explicitly require it, because "only election officials are legally able to determine the validity of a voter registration application." But ACORN says that it first flags all suspicious registrations. Staffers call the phone numbers written on completed registration forms to make sure they're valid and also take note of incomplete or duplicate forms. The group says that it alerts election officials to forms that look fishy when it sends them in."

FactCheck questions whether those procedures were followed by ACORN in several states. Moreover, ACORN accuses officials who are looking into some of these charges as engaging in voter suppression.
"While ACORN says that such raids are part of "a systematic partisan agenda of voter suppression," it is worth noting that in this case, Secretary of State Miller (from Nevada) is a Democrat."
What is clear then is that while ACORN itself is not trying to defraud the voting system, they are simply not doing enough to stop the problems and that is contributing to that perception by the public and giving fodder to people like John McCain.
"Prosecutor Satterberg wrote: "We believe that ACORN’s internal quality control procedures were not just deficient but entirely non-existent when it came to the latter stages of their operation in Tacoma." He fined the group $25,000 for failing to exercise sufficient oversight."
The next question is Obama's ties to ACORN, and FactCheck finds there are a bit more than Obama has let on but not as much as McCain claims.
"The [McCain campaign] ad says that "Obama's ties to ACORN run long and deep" – that he "taught classes" for the group, paid a "front" $800,000 for get-out-the-vote efforts, and was endorsed by ACORN for president. That last one's true – ACORN's political action committee did offer an Obama endorsement. It's also true that Obama has worked with the group in the past."
Here are a few of the ties and you can decide:
  • In 1995, Obama helped represent ACORN in a successful lawsuit to require the state of Illinois to offer "motor voter" registration at DMV offices. (This is the one he claims is his only tied to the organization. But Fact Check finds more ties, albeit indirect).

  • After law school, Obama directed a Chicago registration drive for Project Vote, which works closely with ACORN. And when Obama was on the board of directors of the Woods Fund, the foundation gave grants of $75,000 in 2001 and $70,000 in 2002 to ACORN's Chicago office. The McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee cite an additional grant of $45,000 in 2000. The Woods Fund has not responded to our calls about their 2000 grants.

  • The Obama campaign also paid Citizens Services Inc., a group affiliated with ACORN, more than $800,000 for get-out-the-vote (not voter registration) efforts during the primary election.
"Neither ACORN's Chicago office nor CSI has been accused of voter registration irregularities."
Overall, I think ACORN's problems are partially of their own making but the nature of them has been both exaggerated and distorted by political rhetoric.

If there is a problem it is once again with the notion of using paid canvassers. I have a similar problem with paid canvassers used to put propositions on the ballot. Voter registration is important, but paid canvassers are tantamount to mercenaries, people with no true convictions in it for money rather than public service. The system begs for this kind of problem to develop.

Now there is a way to avoid that problem in the future and that is for the organization to have very strict rules and guidelines and to properly administer and enforce them. And they simply have not done it.

But this is not voter fraud. Registering Dallas Cowboy's quarterback Tony Romo to vote in Nevada is not going to lead someone to fraudulently vote there. It is not going to lead to fraudulent votes being caste. It is simply an effort by paid canvassers to get paid for work they did not do. That's a problem alright, it is a waste of time and energy in the elections office and thievery of ACORN, but it is not going to destroy the fabric of our democracy.

---David M. Greenwald reporting