What the New York Times Gets Right and Wrong About ACORN

ACORN ACORN International voting rights
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New Orleans       P.T. Barnum, the famous 19th century impresario and huckster from Bridgeport, Connecticut is often quoted as saying, “Any kind of publicity is good publicity as long as they spell your name right.”  In that sense, I have read with interest Jim Rutenberg’s piece on the attack on voting in the New York Times, because it marked a major victory for ACORN.  For fifty years, we have fought the Times style book’s insistence on using Acorn, rather than ACORN, the acronym to identify the organization.  The article in the magazine section, finally gets it right.  Sometimes, it’s the little things that make a difference.

On the other hand, Rutenberg tries to dramatize the attack on ACORN as the beginning of the Republican assault on voting rights, which is flatly wrong, and as good as much of his article is, this piece showed laziness on his part, especially when he contradicted his claim later in the same article.

I’m not picking nits here or just pushing back at this effort to shame ACORN, but the facts matter, and here’s what he writes…

In October 2008, as another presidential election neared, several F.B.I. field offices began investigating the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, which, among other community services, was then engaged in one of the largest national voter-registration drives in the country. The group, which mostly served poor neighborhoods, many of them nonwhite, had tenuous ties to Barack Obama, who was one of three attorneys who represented it in a 1995 voting rights suit. Like the Indiana authorities in 2016, the F.B.I. was investigating canvassers who provided fraudulent registrations, in this case to ACORN. And like Mike Pence in 2016, John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, took the opportunity to portray voting rights activists not as the victims of a minor fraud but as the perpetrators of a major one, asserting that ACORN was on the verge of “destroying the fabric of democracy.”

The F.B.I. investigations led to no major federal indictments, but among some conservatives, “ACORN” quickly became the one-word explanation for nefarious forces that propelled a Black man to the presidency. O’Keefe reinforced the narrative when he released videos purporting to show ACORN staff members offering advice to O’Keefe, who presented himself as a pimp seeking advice on how to secure a loan for a brothel, the profits from which he could use to fund a political campaign. The highly edited videos offered no evidence of illegality, but the scandal on top of the investigation ultimately forced ACORN out of existence. Even as McCain lost the race, the ACORN “scandals” helped usher in the largest curtailment of voting rights since the 1960s. As the reactionary Tea Party wave swept Republicans into statehouses, restrictive new laws took hold across the country, all in the name of combating “fraud.”

I like the scare quotes on “scandals,” because this was a manufactured tempest in a teapot.  But, to say the attack on ACORN “helped usher in the largest curtailment of voting rights since the 1960s” is wrong.  Or, at least the dates are wrong.  The Republican playbook in Florida, Pennsylvania, and other battleground states, as well as before the FEC, had been to attack ACORN and accuse the organization of “voter fraud” for its registration efforts for several election cycles before 2008.  Normally, it had been a faux dance, where in the weeks before the elections, Republican operatives would single out ACORN, file baseless complaints to try and dissuade new voters from going to the polls and muddy the waters, and then after the election, usually before a new year would ring in, they would withdraw their complaints, having achieved their tactical purpose.  We weren’t alone in being attacked of course, but since we were running the largest nonpartisan voter registration efforts in the country, we drew the most heat.  Voter suppression had been part of the Republican playbook for years before 2008.  This was an old strategy and tactic that caught fire in 2008, partially with the help of the sordid and sensationalist coverage provided these spurious accounts by the New York Times.

Indirectly, Rutenberg acknowledges as much because he dives back into the blowup involving attempts to fire US attorneys in New Mexico and elsewhere by the Bush administration in 2006.  The cause for the firings was well-reported and crystal clear.  These political appointees were being fired because they refused to prosecute ACORN for vote fraud, not being able to find any.  Rutenberg understands this from the side door, as he writes,

As it happened, Schumer had bumped up against Elston before, when Schumer helped lead the investigation into the Bush administration’s politically motivated firings of the United States attorneys. Elston was a senior Justice Department political appointee at the time and resigned under pressure. A later internal investigation determined that he had consulted on the firing plans and was “close to the line” of intimidation in his apparent efforts to keep the fired attorneys from speaking out. One witness in another investigation, this one in the Senate, also connected him to a questionably timed voter-fraud case against four workers for ACORN during the 2006 midterm elections.

Hey, ACORN can take the heat, and is still alive and kicking after fifty years, even it the organization took a horrific beating from 2008 to 2010 in the United States, but fair is fair.  Rutenberg wrote a great piece on the Republican strategy of voter suppression via claims of voter fraud, but his dramatic flourish in trying to put part of their mess on ACORN’s doorstep is wrong.

As the great ACORN leader from the 1970s, Bill Whipple used to say, this is a rationale at best, and he always defined a rationale as nothing more than “a lie in the skin of a reason.”

Care must be given, but, hey, thanks for spelling the name right:  ACORN!