WASHINGTON — Republicans and their allies in the media and on the Internet are ramping up allegations that the liberal-leaning nonprofit voter registration group Acorn is trying to steal next month's presidential election for Democrat Barack Obama.
Conservative media outlets and Web sites are focusing on Acorn, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. According to TVeyes.com, Fox News alone has mentioned Acorn stories 342 times in recent days.
In nearly a dozen states, county registrars have found phony voter registration applications submitted by canvassers for Acorn; criminal investigations are under way in Nevada, Ohio and elsewhere; and a racketeering suit was filed in Ohio this week. The mounting evidence of Acorn's sloppy management and poor supervision, however, so far doesn't support the explosive charges that the group is trying to rig the presidential election.
Larry Lomax, the registrar in Clark County, Nev., said he'd estimate that 25,000 of the 90,000 applications submitted by Acorn this year were duplicates or phony.
However, Lomax said in a phone interview with McClatchy: "I don't think Acorn consciously sets out to turn in fraudulent forms. I just think the people they hire find it incredibly easy to rip off their bosses and turn in fake forms."
While he criticized Acorn's quality control, Lomax said he doubted that any of the fake filings would result in fraudulent votes.
Election officials say that registrations under names such as Mickey Mouse or Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo suggest that Acorn workers were trying to fill their quota of 20 applications to get paid, not to steal the presidency. They say that county registrars or poll workers would flag such obvious pranks, and that anyone who signed a poll book in another person's name would risk being prosecuted for a felony.
Acorn, which boasts that it's registered 1.3 million mostly poor African-Americans this year, said that it's alerted authorities to many of the suspicious applications. Acorn officials said the group has fired numerous workers who filled in forms with names from the phone book or the Dallas Cowboys starting lineup rather than trekking from door to door.
Moreover, said Acorn spokesman Scott Levenson, state laws in most of the 21 states where the group is active require it to turn all new registrations it collects over to election officials. The group follows that policy even in states where it's not required, but Acorn notifies election officials of suspect registrations in all states. It is our policy to turn in them all, Levenson said.
Nevertheless, Republicans have seized on the reports to attack Obama, who led a voter registration drive on Chicago's South Side in 1992 for Project Vote, a group that later hired Acorn to register voters. They also pointed to the Obama campaign's hiring of an Acorn affiliate for get-out-the-vote efforts and to his role, while on the board of two Chicago charities, in approving hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants for Acorn.
In the final presidential debate on Wednesday night, John McCain said that Obama has been affiliated with Acorn, which he said is "now on the verge of perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, and maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." McCain said it was "the same outfit that your campaign gave $832,000."
Obama's campaign did pay $832,000 to an affiliate of Acorn, Citizens Services, to help turn out voters in Democratic primaries, although the purpose of the money was initially misstated in reports to the Federal Election Commission. Obama acknowledged during the debate that he did legal work for Acorn in Chicago in the early 1990s on a suit to force the city to comply with the National Voter Registration Act.
On Tuesday, the conservative-leaning Buckeye Institute filed a racketeering suit against Acorn in Warren County, Ohio, a Republican stronghold in the southwestern part of the state. The suit, nearly identical to a 2004 suit that was withdrawn after the election, seeks to avoid the dilution of legitimate votes, but doesn't contend "that the election is going to be stolen," said attorney Maurice Thompson, who filed it.
Ohio Acorn spokeswoman Kati Gall called the suit "a political stunt."
Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio followed the suit Wednesday with a letter asking U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to work with Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner "to investigate swiftly any allegations of fraud in Ohio's voter registration process." Separately, a Republican National Committee lawyer argued that convicted felons who work for Acorn shouldn't be allowed to register voters in Milwaukee.
Acorn has long been a target of Republicans, including the Justice Department under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Five days before the 2006 election, interim U.S. Attorney Bradley Schlozman of Kansas City trumpeted the indictments of four Acorn voter registration workers, despite a department policy discouraging politically sensitive prosecutions close to elections. Schlozman is now facing a criminal investigation into the veracity of his congressional testimony about that and other matters.
Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said he thinks that the Republican attacks on Acorn "are part of a concerted effort to ... discredit the registration of many new voters who may well determine the outcome of the presidential election."
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