WASHINGTON — The furor over ACORN's national voter registration drive exploded with new controversies Friday, including a call by Barack Obama for an independent prosecutor, a Supreme Court ruling over voter access and the disclosure of a death threat against an ACORN worker.
What remains unclear is whether the campaigns of Obama and John McCain will reach a truce over voter access to the polls by Election Day or whether their legal and rhetorical battles will persist to the finish line — or beyond.
Republicans allege that the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now is engaged in rampant voter fraud, but they've offered no proof of such a systematic effort. The GOP does have evidence that some of the group's 13,000 canvassers submitted fraudulent applications, but ACORN says it alerted authorities to most of the phony forms.
Democrats counter that the GOP is trying to whip up fears of voter fraud so it can knock students and low-income minorities off the voter rolls to enhance McCain's chances of victory.
On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled an attempt by Republicans to challenge the validity of 200,000 voter registrations in Ohio, saying that the party lacked the standing to sue.
The Republicans had sued to force Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, to provide county election officials with lists of registrants whose personal information did not exactly match Social Security or driver's license data, a step that would leave those voters vulnerable to eligibility challenges.
Tensions began to escalate Thursday with disclosures that the FBI is investigating ACORN and the possibility that it's engaged in a vote-fraud scheme.
On Friday, Obama's legal counsel, Robert Bauer, wrote Attorney General Michael Mukasey, charging that the inquiry is politically motivated and that it risks repeating the 2007 scandal over the Bush administration's politicization of the Justice Department.
Bauer asked Mukasey to broaden a special prosecutor's investigation to examine the origin of the ACORN inquiry.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment, except to say: "We will review the letter."
Earlier Friday, ACORN told McClatchy that one of its senior staffers in Cleveland had received a death threat and that its Boston and Seattle offices had been vandalized sometime Thursday, reflecting the mounting tensions over the group's role in registering 1.3 million mostly poor and minority Americans to vote.
ACORN attorneys drafted a letter alerting the FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division of the incidents, said Brian Kettenring, a Florida-based spokesman for the group.
Kettenring said that a senior ACORN staffer in Cleveland, after appearing on television this week, got an e-mail that said she "is going to have her life ended." A female staffer in Providence, R.I., got a threatening call from someone who said words to the effect of "We know you get off work at 9," then uttered racial epithets, he said.
McClatchy is withholding the women's names because of the threats.
Separately, vandals broke into the group's Boston and Seattle offices and stole computers, Kettenring said.
The incidents came the day after McCain charged in the final presidential debate that ACORN's voter-registration drive "may be perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history" and may be "destroying the fabric of democracy."
McCain's comments provoked a response from ACORN.
"I would not say that Senator McCain is inciting violence," Kettenring said, "but I would say that his statements about the role of this manufactured scandal were totally outlandish."
Kettenring said that the debate comments seemed to have tipped the atmosphere "to a scary point, where raising allegations of voter fraud went from a cynical campaign ploy to really inciting racial violence." He called on McCain "to tamp down the fringe elements in his party."
McCain Campaign Manager Rick Davis didn't directly address the threats, but said he sent a letter inviting Obama campaign manager David Plouffe to join an Honest and Open Election Committee "to ensure that there is a total confidence level in the American public for these elections."
"We believe that these are important historical elections and nothing should mar the outcome, regardless of whether we win or lose," he said.
Since McCain's remarks, ACORN's 87 offices across the country have received hundreds of hostile e-mails, many of them containing racial slurs, Kettenring said. "We believe that these are specifically McCain supporters" sending the messages, he said.
The e-mail to the Cleveland employee was traced to a Facebook Web page in the name of a Baltimore man. It featured a photo of a McCain-Palin sign.
Kettenring said that the bulk of the e-mails had been either "flat-out racist" or had racial overtones. Most of the group's 400 members and about 80 percent of the 13,000 voter-registration canvassers are African-American or Latino.
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