The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Real Tragedy of ACORN

“From a little acorn, a mighty hoax doth grow.”

I apologize to the anonymous Fourteenth Century aphorist from whose famous maxim I paraphrased the statement above. However, it applies all too well to the current political season.

The nut of the controversy is the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a liberal activist group that historically has helped register some of society’s poorest and least influential members to vote. Over a dozen states have raised questions about fraudulent registrations turned in by ACORN this past year. The Republican Party has seized on the story and inflated it to new dimensions of hyperbole.

In the most recent Presidential debate, GOP candidate John McCain claimed that ACORN “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.”

Fact-checking organizations have universally characterized that statement as overblown. However, the fact remains that ACORN has had problems in both the current and past elections with some of its registrations.

In 2008, ACORN hired more than thirteen thousand part-time workers in twenty-one states to sign up voters in minority and impoverished neighborhoods. ACORN submitted 1.3 million registration cards to local election officials.

This stunning total has included it share of obviously fake registrations, including cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the entire starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys football team, and bundles of cards all bearing the same handwriting.

Both McCain and Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin have condemned ACORN thoroughly and questioned their Democratic opponent’s ties to them.

For his part, Obama admits he once represented the group to successfully pass an Illinois motor-voter registration law in 1995. Records also indicate the Obama campaign paid approximately $800,000 to Citizens Services Inc., an ACORN offshoot, for “get out the vote” efforts in Ohio and other places. Otherwise, Obama maintains his campaign has no direct connection with ACORN's massive voter registration drive.

ACORN insists its problems are limited to a handful of lazy or dishonest canvassers, suggesting a barrel of acorns is no different from one of apples. ACORN does not pay on a quota of new voters registered. However, part-time ACORN workers receive only one day of training and paid $8 an hour to collect signatures. It is not surprising that some might want to keep a good-paying job by appearing to do better than they really are or keep making easy money for doing nothing.

ACORN points out its own quality control workers were the first to discover problematic registrations and tipped off local officials to suspicious cards in every state now investigating the organization. Many states, including my own state of Ohio, require groups such as ACORN to submit all registrations collected to voting officials, even those known to be fraudulent. This is a sensible practice and helps prevent real potential voter fraud, such as a left-leaning group “filtering out” registrations from voters indicating a preference for McCain to canvassers.

“There are certainly problems and I don't think anyone disagrees on that,” says a spokesperson for the government watchdog agency Common Cause. “But it doesn't get reported that ACORN finds these registrations errors themselves. They flag them as being no good but they have to turn them in anyway.”

ACORN says it fires canvassers caught at submitting phony registrations. The group is currently calculating the number of bad cards flagged for election officials but doubts it will exceed two percent of the total registrations submitted.

Even without its self-policing efforts, ACORN’s activities are only truly worrisome if fraudulent registrations typically led to fraudulent votes. All of the evidence suggests quite the opposite.

Common Cause calls Republican allegations against ACORN “one big head-fake . . . It's all about creating this perception that there is a tremendous problem with voter fraud in this country and it's not true.” A 2007 report by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law concurs, stating, “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than impersonate another voter at the polls.”

This is the real tragedy of the ACORN controversy. Phony voter registrations are not dangerous because they are usually detected – often by the groups collecting them. The greater the number of new registrants collected, the greater the chance for submission of some spurious cards. Yet the presence of any faux registrations gives opponents credence in their conspiratorial claims of widespread voter fraud. The steps recommended to deal with such situations are often just as dangerous to democracy as the ills they claim to cure.

Historically, anytime one person or group is claiming a legitimate instance of voter fraud, you can find another person or group with an equally legitimate claim of voter intimidation and suppression.

In past elections, armed state police officers went into the homes of elderly black voters in Orlando Florida to question them as part of a so-called criminal investigation involving absentee ballots. A Texas district attorney threatened students at predominantly black Prairie View A&M with arrest if they voted in the county where the school was located, insisting they were ineligible to do so. This is patently untrue so long as students listed the campus as their home address when registering.

In the current election, John Pappageorge, a white, Republican Michigan state legislator, was quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying, “If we do not suppress the Detroit vote [which is eighty percent African American], we're going to have a tough time in this election.” Pappageorge denied he meant anything racist by this statement but reiterated that vote suppression was a necessary tactic this year for Republicans.

Consider the case of Joe the Plumber, made famous by John McCain in the third Presidential debate. The press has plumbed Joe a great deal already and revealed many things about him with little merit on the issues. However, one interesting finding is that he voted for the first time this year in the Ohio Republican primary and state records incorrectly spell his last name as “Worzelbacher” rather than “Wurzelbacher.”

This means Joe is one of over six hundred and fifty thousand new voters to register in Ohio this year for the coming election. Recently, the Republican Party filed suit with Ohio’s Democratic Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, to provide them with a list of as many as two hundred thousand of this number whose registration information did not provide a direct match with Ohio’s drivers license database.

A federal judge threw out their claim but the Sixth District Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision. Brunner appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with her. In an unsigned opinion, the Court based its ruling not on whether Ohio is complying with a federal law for verifying voter eligibility but because that law does not allow private entities, such as the Ohio Republican Party, to file suit.

“They didn't deal with the merits of the case,” wailed Ohio GOP Chairman Bob Bennett. “What they dealt with was a technicality.” (Lily Ledbetter was doubtlessly in quiet agreement that the Court can be a real bunch of jerks about that sometimes.)

The point is that if Republicans had prevailed, Joe the Plumber, who has made it pretty clear he favors McCain for President, might not have been allowed to vote this year. In 2004, Brunner’s Republican predecessor, Ken Blackwell, withdrew a last minute plan to challenge more than thirty thousand voters at the polls whose registration information did not match state records.

Brunner has called the Republican challenge a veiled attempt at disenfranchising voters. In her petition to the Supreme Court, she told the Justices, “If the Sixth Circuit's decision is allowed to stand, an untold number of legitimate voters in Ohio will be forced to re-establish the bona fides of their vote before the county boards of elections or they will stay home out of frustration or confusion.”

Voter suppression need not consist of dogs and armed vigilantes outside polling places nor minorities and the poor its only victims. This election has seen unprecedented numbers of new or lapsed voters reinvigorated by candidates McCain, Obama, and Clinton. What surer way to keep these excited new voters at home than a cynical acquiescence that their vote is worthless – not because somebody will bar them from the voting booth but because the system is so corrupt as to be past any reformation.

A recent New York Times editorial scolded Republicans kvetching over voter fraud about another scandal – “the fact that about one-third of eligible voters are not registered.” According to a 2006 study by Project Vote, twenty-nine percent of white Americans, thirty-nine percent of African Americans, forty-six percent of Latino-Americans, and fifty-one percent of Asian-Americans are not registered.

It is tragic that ACORN, a group that has dedicated itself since 1970 to giving the historically most disenfranchised an opportunity to vote, is now being used to discourage that very thing from happening in the name of fighting the hoax of massive, imminent voter fraud.

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