Calmer Voices

Community Organizing Ideas and Issues
Calmer Voices
October 16, 2008

    New Orleans
For all of the uproar — there are other, calmer voices trying to be heard in addition to the reporter from McClatchy mentioned yesterday.

Part 1:    Columbia Journalism Review

Campaign Desk

Rooting Up ACORN

NPR’s take on the suddenly infamous organization
By Katia Bachko Wed 15 Oct 2008 02:29 PM 

Ever since the McCain campaign called for an investigation into voter registration fraud perpetrated by the nonprofit organization ACORN, many news outlets have attempted to clarify what, exactly, the group does and how it is connected to Barack Obama.
Today, NPR’s Peter Overby offers another take, which, unfortunately, leaves listeners with no clearer understanding about the legitimacy of the allegations. The lead-in to the piece promises that there’s “a lot more” to the ACORN story than the GOP accusations. There is, but NPR fails to put all the pieces together.
The NPR report does a good job establishing ACORN’s mission–advocating for jobs, education, etc.–and the archive department pulls a great ace from the audio library: a 2006 clip of John McCain congratulating ACORN organizers for exemplifying “what makes America special.”
NPR also lays out the full extent of Obama’s connections with ACORN: the Illinois lawsuit, the affiliation on Project Vote, the $800,000 paid for voter registration work, and the endorsement of the organization’s PAC. But things get muddled afterward.
Overby interviews Tim Miller, from the corporate-backed Employment Policies Institute, who details the history of complaints against ACORN and maligns the group’s financial practices, in light of the recent embezzlement-related ouster of the group’s founder. (The founder’s brother, the organization’s controller, stole approximately $1 million from the group.) But Overby spends no time explaining that the embezzlement scandal has no connection to the current registration fraud issues, and, more importantly, that Barack Obama has no connection with either affair.
Next, the report airs a McCain ad linking Obama to ACORN’s alleged pattern of “nationwide voter fraud.” Yet Overby does not clarify the difference between vote fraud and registration fraud; nor does he explain or contextualize the claim that ACORN is “flooding polling places with illegal voters.” An attorney specializing in voting protocols would have been useful here. Yes, ACORN may have submitted some fraudulent registration forms, but that’s because they’re legally required to submit every form they collect. Otherwise we’d invite a different kind of registration fraud, where organizers could throw out forms they deemed unacceptable for any given reason. What’s more, ACORN itself raised some of the alerts about the legitimacy of the forms now under investigation. And, also, the questionable forms represent a small portion of the overall registrations collected.
There are legitimate angles to the ACORN story, and they deserve to be reported. But what we’re missing here is context. NPR and others have to fulfill their “a lot more to the story” promise. Explain how ACORN registers voters; explain the laws; explain when Obama was involved and when he wasn’t; outline ACORN’s association with the Democratic party, and with the Republicans as well. The group has a complicated history, as this Slate piece explains. Pinning the fault entirely on Obama and the donkeys is a massive stretch.


Part 2:  Slate

explainer: Answers to your questions about the news.

What’s Up With ACORN?How a community-organizing group became Republican cause celebre.

By Jacob Leibenluft
Updated Friday, Oct. 10, 2008, at 6:47 PM ET

 ACORN activists With voter registration coming to a close, the community-organizing group ACORN has become a major target of criticism by Republicans in recent weeks. On Thursday, Slate’s John Dickerson reported that members of the crowd at a McCain rally in Wisconsin started shouting the organization’s name as a rallying cry. When did a group more typically known for its minimum-wage and housing campaigns become such a controversial organization in national politics?
In the run-up to the 2004 election. ACORN–that’s the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now–was founded in 1970 and has long been known for its activism surrounding local issues in urban areas. The group earned its fair share of criticism from the right over the years–not least for its controversial tactics, which have included disrupting a speech by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995. In 2003, Manhattan Institute scholar Sol Stern described ACORN as promoting "a 1960s-bred agenda of anti-capitalism, central planning, victimology, and government handouts to the poor."
These days, Republicans are accusing ACORN of committing widespread voter-registration fraud. The group has been involved in registration efforts since its early days, but that aspect of its work did not earn much criticism until recent years. In 1993, Newsday reported that the New York State Senate had held hearings over the legality of ostensibly nonpartisan voter drives conducted by ACORN and sponsored by the state’s Democratic Party. In 1999, about 400 voter-registration cards submitted by ACORN in Philadelphia were flagged for investigation after a judge stated that "a cursory look would have suggested that they were all in the same hand." Meanwhile, the earliest example of registration fraud documented on "Rotten ACORN," a critical Web site put together by the Employment Policies Institute, comes from 1998–but that’s the only case cited from before 2003.
The group came under much stronger scrutiny, however, during its expanded registration efforts for the 2004 presidential campaign. In Florida, a former ACORN employee accused the group, in a lawsuit, of removing Republican registration cards and paying workers for each card collected–a felony under state law. (After the election, the worker’s suit was dismissed as lacking evidence, and a judge upheld ACORN’s countercharge of libel.) In October 2004, the Employment Policies Institute released a report (PDF) saying that the group had been "implicated in several voter fraud cases in states across the nation," noting the Florida accusations along with reports that a New Mexico ACORN employee had registered a 13-year-old to vote and that a Minnesota employee had been found with 300 unfiled registration cards in his trunk. At the same time, the U.S. Justice Department placed a greater emphasis on prosecuting registration fraud. (David Iglesias, one of the U.S. attorneys whose firing precipitated an investigation of the Justice Department, claims he was removed for declining to prosecute the ACORN employee in New Mexico–and also failing to respond to other fraud accusations made by state Republicans. The Minnesota man, on the other hand, pled guilty to two felonies.)
The rhetoric surrounding ACORN has grown louder in the 2006 and 2008 campaigns. (Barack Obama was part of a legal team that represented ACORN in a voting-rights case in the 1990s; his campaign has denied claims that he ever worked for the group in another capacity or trained its employees.) After a Las Vegas ACORN office was raided by Nevada authorities this week, House minority whip Roy Blunt called for a full-scale investigation of the organization, saying that fraudulent registrations "slows down the processing of those who are legitimately trying to register to vote." ACORN’s supporters, however, say the group flags problematic registration cards for election officials and that no one has shown any link between registration fraud and fraudulent ballots actually being cast on Election Day.
Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.
Explainer thanks John Atlas of the National Housing Institute, Jonathan Bechtle of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, Tim Miller of the Employment Policies Institute, and Lorraine Minnite of Barnard College.

Part 3:  Washington Post reprinted by Concord Monitor
McCain, GOP blame mortgage crisis on anti-poverty group
Obama’s voting rights link to ACORN bashed

By Steven A. Holmes and Mary Pat Flaherty The Washington Post
October 15, 2008 – 12:00 am
ACORN, a community organizing group that has operated for nearly 40 years outside the national spotlight, suddenly finds itself a central issue in the presidential campaign.
Republican officials and advisers to Sen. John McCain have sought to paint the group – which focuses on low-income housing, voter registration, the minimum wage and other issues – as radical and have accused it of playing a role in the economic crisis and fomenting voter fraud. At the same time, the McCain campaign has sought to tie the group closely to Sen. Barack Obama.
The charges have come repeatedly, in news releases, conference calls to reporters and remarks on the campaign trail.
Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz called ACORN a "quasi-criminal group" last week during one of a series of news conferences, charging that the group was committing fraud during its voter-registration drives. "We don’t do that lightly," RNC chief counsel Sean Cairncross said.
‘It’s a lie, it’s irresponsible’
All this leaves leaders of ACORN – formally known as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now – agape.
"It’s pretty shocking that anyone would say such a thing," said Bertha Lewis, interim chief organizer for National ACORN, of Diaz’s assertion. "It’s a lie, it’s irresponsible, and I’m really disappointed that they would say such a thing. What’s the meaning of quasi-criminal anyway?"
Cairncross accused ACORN of engaging in a "systematic effort to undermine the election process" through its voter-registration drives. Media reports have cited problems in 12 states, in which registration cards submitted by ACORN were incomplete or had false or duplicate names or were turned in without a person’s knowledge.
1.3 million voters registered
Much of the political attention has stemmed from a program in Nevada, where ACORN hired 59 inmates in a work program to help register voters. The state attorney general halted the program. Nevada authorities last week seized records from ACORN’s Las Vegas office after accusing the group of submitting fraudulent registration forms, which included names of players for the Dallas Cowboys.
State officials in North Carolina and county officials in Missouri are also investigating registrations submitted by ACORN.
ACORN has helped register 1.3 million voters in 21 states and routinely notifies local officials of incomplete or suspicious registration cards, Lewis said in a recent interview. She said local election officials sometimes use those cards to "come back weeks or months later and accuse us of deliberately turning in phony cards."
In a statement, Lewis said that "groups threatened by our historic success" have gone after ACORN because of whom the group registers: As many as 70 percent of the new voters are minorities, and half are younger than 30.
Linked to meltdown
The McCain campaign also has sought to link ACORN to the financial crisis. One of the campaign’s online ads says that the Chicago chapter of the group was engaged in "bullying banks" to issue "risky" mortgages, "the same type of loans that caused the financial crisis we’re in today," the ad’s narrator says.

Page 2
ACORN officials acknowledge that the group lobbied for passage of the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977, which required banks to try to increase lending to low-income home buyers. The group also urged banks, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to loosen requirements on mortgages available to low-income applicants.
But ACORN officials, supported by several economists, say it is absurd to blame the crisis on the Community Reinvestment Act, which has been in place for decades. They also note that much of the subprime lending came from investment banks not under the act’s jurisdiction. In fact, they say, they have been pressuring federal regulators since 1999 to crack down on many of the institutions that provided subprime loans.
"ACORN, more than any other group, pleaded with regulators . . . to please, please regulate these institutions because they were stealing market share from banks that were making safe loans and inflating housing prices," said Mike Shea, executive director of ACORN Housing.
ACORN fired back Monday at the McCain campaign, releasing a 2006 photo of the Arizona senator delivering the keynote speech at a pro-immigration rally in Miami that the group sponsored. "Maybe it is out of desperation that Sen. McCain has forgotten that he was for ACORN before he was against ACORN," Lewis said.
Republicans have often pointed to links between ACORN and Obama. The McCain campaign has asserted that Obama once represented ACORN in court and did work for it and that it is an arm of his campaign, with Obama trying to conceal an $800,000 payment to the organization for campaign work.
Obama’s presidential campaign was endorsed by ACORN’s political action committee. And Obama campaign officials acknowledged paying a group affiliated with ACORN more than $800,000 to conduct get-out-the-vote operations during the Democratic primaries in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Texas. The campaign said $80,000 of that money went directly to ACORN.
Early in Obama’s career, he took part in training sessions for ACORN staff members in Chicago, according to campaign and ACORN officials. And in 1995, Obama was one of three lawyers from the law firm of Miner, Barnhill and Galland assigned to represent a coalition of organizations suing the state of Illinois over failure to implement the National Voter Registration Act, or the motor-voter law. The groups included ACORN, the League of Women Voters and the U.S. Justice Department.

Part 4:        San Francisco Chronicle
Voter fraud called a minor issue for November
Zachary Coile, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Thursday, October 16, 2008________________________________________
(10-16) 04:00 PDT Washington – —

By focusing attention on false voter registration forms filed by the liberal group ACORN, Republicans and Arizona Sen. John McCain are raising alarm bells about the potential for widespread voter fraud this fall.

But election experts say the chances for significant voter fraud in November are slim. Most of the false or duplicate names – such as "Mickey Mouse" and the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys – are already being struck from voter rolls by election boards. Election experts say that while there have been isolated cases of voter fraud in recent history, it’s virtually impossible to pull off large-scale voter fraud without being discovered.
"Is it going to cause headaches for election officials? Yes," said Richard L. Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School and a specialist in election law. "Are they going to have duplicate or false names in their registration databases? Yes. Is it going to change the election outcome? No. … Duplicate registrations don’t lead to fraudulent votes being cast. You don’t get Joe Montana voting 400 times even if he’s registered 400 times in San Francisco."
McCain used Wednesday’s final presidential debate to try to tie Obama to the controversy over ACORN, The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which has endorsed the Democrat for president and registered 1.3 million voters over the last two years.
McCain said the group is "now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country." He also alluded to the fact that Obama’s campaign had paid a firm affiliated with ACORN $800,000 earlier this year for get-out-the-vote efforts.
Obama downplayed his ties to the group, noting that he represented ACORN as a lawyer in the mid-1990s in a lawsuit to force Illinois to implement a federal law allowing voters to register to vote when they applied for a driver’s license.
"ACORN is a community organization. Apparently what they have done is they were paying people to go out and register folks," Obama replied. "Apparently, some of the people who were out there didn’t really register people, they just filled out a bunch of names. It had nothing to do with us."
Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, hit back on the issue this week, warning that Republicans planned to use the ACORN controversy as a prelude to begin legal challenges to purge voters – many of them newly added Democratic voters – from the rolls.
"This is just the start of what is going to be a very deliberate and cynical attempt to try and create confusion and challenge people inappropriately," Plouffe said.
Doug Chapin, director of, a group that tracks election reform issues, said the skirmish over ACORN is part of a long-running battle between the parties, with Republicans demanding tougher rules on voter registration to prevent voter fraud and Democrats warning against efforts that could knock legitimate voters off the rolls.
"ACORN has become a rope in the tug of war between the two parties over voter registration," Chapin said.
He said there’s little evidence to back up claims of massive voter fraud or voter suppression efforts this year. He said both parties are jockeying for political and legal advantage with court challenges looming in battleground states over who is and who isn’t eligible to vote.
The GOP won a round on Tuesday when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, must set up new checks to verify whether new voters are eligible. Ohio Republicans are also helping voters sue local election boards over registration rules and absentee ballot requests.
Republicans are likely to keep the focus on the allegations against ACORN. In Philadelphia, city officials have identified at least 8,000 suspicious ballots turned in by the group, and 1,500 have been handed over to the district attorney’s office. In Nevada, the group hired 59 prisoners to collect voter registration forms and one prisoner told authorities that inmates filled out many false names, including the Cowboys football roster, because they "were not interested in working and just wanted to make money."
In Ohio, a Cleveland man told a local election board that ACORN workers urged him to sign 73 different voter registration forms – all in his own name. The workers involved have since been fired.
ACORN officials insist that the vast majority of their registration cards were accurate. "Out of 13,000 workers, there were inevitably a few who decided they’d try to pad their hours by duplicating a card and filling out another one or making up a name," said Kevin Whelan, an organizer for the group in Minneapolis. He added that ACORN officials will alert election boards to forms that look suspect.
Stephen Weir, the clerk-recorder and registrar of voters for Contra Costa County and the former president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said large voter registration drives often produce some false or duplicate registrations. But he noted that election officials have systems in place to make sure each voter is eligible.
The Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002 after the 2000 election debacle in Florida, required that new voter registrations include a "unique identifier" – a driver’s license number or the last four digits of the Social Security number – to verify the voter’s identity.
"It’s not like you can just make this stuff up and, voila, you are a registered voter," Weir said. "You’ve got to be pretty clever to steal an ‘identifier’ to steal a vote. You have to have one of those identifiers. If you don’t, that’s going to stop the process."
E-mail Zachary Coile at