GOP’s ACORN moment

A Republican consulting firm allegedly commits voter registration fraud. Where's the right-wing outrage this time?

Topics: Acorn, Florida, Voter Fraud, Voter ID, RNC,

There are still plenty of conservatives who think ACORN stole the 2008 election for Obama and will do it again this year. ACORN was everywhere four years ago. Even John McCain, late in his campaign and desperate to land a blow on Obama, ran an ad tying his challenger to the community-organizing group before saying in the final debate 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.” How did ACORN steal the election? A number of the group’s paid canvassers had been caught submitting false voter registration forms in a handful of states, using the names of dead people or false addresses, in order to avoid working.

Four years later, ACORN is dead, and a Republican firm contracted by the Republican National Committee has adopted its shady tactics. But, so far at least, there’s been hardly a peep from the same conservatives who seized on ACORN about one of their own engaging in almost identical fraudulent tactics.

Prosecutors in Florida are looking into alleged voter registration fraud conducted by employees of Strategic Allied Consulting, which the RNC and state parties hired in at least five states. The RNC has now cut ties with the firm after news broke that its employees had registered dead people and listed the addresses of a Land Rover dealership and other non-residences on registration forms. Paul Lux, the Republican supervisor of elections in Okaloosa County, Fla., who first brought the suspect registration forms to the attention of prosecutors, said as many as one in three were questionable. “It’s kind of ironic that the dead people they accused ACORN of registering are now being done by the RPOF [Republican Party of Florida],” Lux said.

Of the myriad conspiracy theories about Obama, the ACORN one had perhaps the most truth to it, though that’s a low bar. Some ACORN canvassers did, in fact, submit fraudulent voter registration forms, but there’s no evidence that anyone committed actual voter fraud nor that it was part of any kind of concerted effort to sway the election. ACORN noted it had 13,000 paid canvassers and that it was only a tiny handful who submitted phony forms. As the Republican prosecuting attorney said in King County, Wash., where the largest ACORN registration fraud suit took place, “[A] joint federal and state investigation has determined that this scheme was not intended to permit illegal voting. Instead, the defendants cheated their employer … to get paid for work they did not actually perform.”

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For this, the group was killed. Tea Party groups organized rallies, local authorities squeezed the group, and Congress even introduced and passed a bill in 2009 called the “Defund ACORN Act.” The group, which suffered from other significant legal and financial issues, is now defunct. But in that time, ACORN became a top-tier villain of the right, mentioned hundreds of times in 2008 and 2009 by conservative media figures tracked by Media Matters. In later 2009, the pollster PPP asked respondents, “Do you think that Barack Obama legitimately won the Presidential election last year, or do you think that ACORN stole it for him?” Among Republicans, only 27 percent said Obama actually won the race — 52 percent said that ACORN stole it. Even some GOP congressional candidates blamed their losses on ACORN.

Should we expect the same kind of outrage from the right over the RNC’s contracting of a firm that did essentially the same thing as ACORN, and maybe even more? Don’t hold your breath.

Beyond Florida, Strategic Allied Consulting has been hired to register GOP voters in Nevada, North Carolina, Colorado and Virginia. Indeed, it was the the only firm hired by the RNC for voter registration, according to a spokesperson. At least one other election official in Florida has found suspect registration forms, and it’s too early to tell if the firm’s work in other states may be compromised as well.

But it’s not like the party had no warning. Nathan Sproul, the consultant who runs Strategic Allied Consulting and a handful of other companies, has a long history of dabbling in the political dark arts and has received copious public criticism for it. As Brad Friedman notes, Sproul’s antics have included everything from gathering signatures to put Ralph Nader on the ballot in 2000 to being banned from Wal-Mart for putting on partisan voting drives. In 2004, workers hired by Sproul said supervisors disposed of registration forms completed by Democrats. “They were thrown away in the trash,” an employee said. Canvassers are allowed to “pre-screen” people for party affiliation, but cannot dispose of an already completed voter registration form. That year, Sens. Patrick Leahy and Ted Kennedy sent a letter requesting that the Justice Department investigate the allegations, but the Bush DoJ did nothing.

In fact, as the Nation’s Lee Fang notes, “As Congress and ethics experts loudly called for investigations into Sproul’s voter suppression, the Bush administration literally welcomed Sproul and his wife into the White House for a Christmas party in 2006.” Even after all this, Sproul was hired by the Romney campaign to collect signatures during the GOP primary.

So far, there’s been literally zero mention on leading conservative blogs and media outlets. While it’s been less than 24 hours since news that the RNC had dropped the firm broke, considering the breathless way these outlets have covered voter fraud schemes involving Democrats, one would expect at least a mention. But a search on Strategic Allied Consulting or Nathan Sproul turns up zero results on the Weekly Standard, the National Review, RedState, the Breitbart sites, Michelle Malkin, Hot Air and other leading conservative blogs that have written about voter fraud. Fox News has also been silent on the issue, according to a transcript search.

In reality, the Strategic Allied Consulting’s improprieties will likely have about as much effect as ACORN’s voter registration fraud did on the election — almost none. But it should at least complicate the conservative narrative about voter fraud, which not only vastly overestimates the amount of in-person voter fraud that occurs in the U.S. (in reality, there is almost none), but it also assumes that the fraud that does occur is to benefit Democrats.

And it’s worth noting that the favored response to (supposed) voter problems from conservatives, voter ID laws, would have done nothing to stop this case, as most proposed laws require an ID only to vote, not to register. We already knew that the ACORN allegations were more about politics than substance, but the lesson from this case, if there is one, is that fraud is rare, both sides are capable of it, and potentially disenfranchising millions of voters with new ID laws to deal with it doesn’t make any sense.

Alex Seitz-Wald
Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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