Category Archives: voting rights

What the New York Times Gets Right and Wrong About ACORN

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!

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Database Voter Suppression Strategy

New Orleans      We all know it’s bad, and then we find out that it’s even worse than we imagined.  Sharing the Voter Purge Project’s recently released report on consistent errors in the voter purge lists in states, red and blue, it is clear that this whole “system” of “cleaning” the lists is broken, state by state, to some degree or another.  But, then reading Jim Rutenberg’s deeply reported story in the New York Times Magazine, “The Attack on Voting,” uncovered whole new layers of inner connections and conspiracies to suppress voters even past what we had imagined.

Rutenberg’s main theme is unpacking the almost completely baseless Republican, Trumpian, and currently governmental efforts to create a narrative around voter fraud without any evidence in order dissuade the electorate from voting and to secure partisan advantage by delegitimizing the coming election for Trump’s benefit.  Rutenberg’s story is certainly not flawless, and there are some bones I would pick with some of his interferences, particularly about ACORN, but nonetheless he connected some dots together on the suppression effort that speak to the malice involved, and the future course that is necessary to protect voter lists.

I stand second to no one in my condemnation of the work of Kris Kobach, former Kansas Secretary of State, and longtime nemesis of immigrant and architect of voter exclusion strategies.  We have applauded the good sense of Kansas voters in rejecting his bid for both governor and more recently Senator from their state, but, sadly, that may still not protect the rest of us enough from some of his strategies and tactics.  His efforts as Vice-President’s wingman on the special commission Trump created at his urging after the 2016 election all blew up when the bipartisan fiction behind the commission disappeared over their attempts to freeze out the Democratic members and use the commission to generate reports that would align with their arguments, regardless of the facts.  This was especially true when they tried to allege massive voter fraud in the New Hampshire election based on drivers’ license identifications that were legally allowed in the state.

Lawsuits against the commission detailed the plans for what Kobach and his team were really trying to do:

The documents showed that there was a much larger project in the works. In several meetings, Kobach, von Spakovsky, Adams, McCormick and the vice president’s office had discussed the creation of a gargantuan database of government-held information to search national voter rolls and find irregularities. Such list matching, as the practice is known, is the means by which states regularly analyze their voting rolls to ensure that they do not contain dead people or people who have moved out of state. But when data matching is done poorly, it can be a prolific source of false claims about supposedly invalid voters and can cause wrongful cancellations of large numbers of legitimately registered citizens. In the wrong hands, there could be no more powerful engine of voter suppression.

Kobach had built out a prototype for such a database as Kansas secretary of state. His Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck system matched first and last names and birthdays of registered voters across nearly 30 states. But it had serious flaws. One study showed that Kobach’s program would cause 300 wrongful terminations for every double registration it might prevent; another study found that nonwhite voters — who are more likely to share the same names than white voters are — were far more likely to be flagged in its data. The entire program was ultimately suspended because of litigation.

Now the commission was planning a sprawling federal version of Kobach’s Crosscheck system. Its Republican members wanted access to government data from the Department of Education, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Homeland Security, Citizenship and Immigration Services, public-assistance services and the federal court system, as well as from all 50 states. All of it would feed into what was to be the mother of all voter-fraud reports….

It is hard not to see their intentions as an attack on the very heart of our voting system and a hostile takeover on whatever is left of our democratic pretense.  Data can be manipulated if it is in the wrong hands, which is exactly why the Voter Purge Project has been so committed to policing the pure voter lists.

There’s a right way to do this according to nonpartisan experts:

The premium data it was seeking to use could have helped lead to more accurate voting rolls, with hundreds of data scientists and a long period of study, Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who provides expert analysis for voting rights cases, told me. But with the resources the commission had and the time frame on which it was working, he said, the final product promised to be “a total dumpster fire” of sensational charges based on flawed data matching.

We need to make the aim of any election data system voter protection, not voter suppression, and that would mean a nonpartisan role for the federal government in safeguarding the process and the data, rather than allowing the state-side mischief of Crosscheck, Kobach, and other anti-democratic conspirators.

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