Another look at the ACORN furor

The right is trying to link the organization to Barack Obama, but the claims of voter fraud and the facts don't really match up.

Published October 9, 2008 8:35PM (EDT)

The new hot thing on the right? ACORN. It seems like every conservative media outlet or commentator is bringing up the group, and charging it with committing voter fraud on a massive scale. The meme is getting to its intended targets -- witness one of the women captured in the video posted earlier, who knew vague details about the organization but, when it came down to it, wasn't really sure why she was supposed to be so angry. John McCain himself called for an investigation at a recent campaign rally, apparently in response to crowd demand.

These claims pop up in every election cycle. This time, though, they have a particular resonance. Conservatives are attempting to use some tenuous links between ACORN and Barack Obama to attempt to connect the Democratic nominee to the group and, by extension, to voter fraud and who knows what kind of other nefarious activities.

All this noise creates quite a bit of confusion as to what, exactly, the problem is with ACORN's activities and who is committing all these acts of alleged voter fraud. It's important to cut through that noise because the portrayal of the situation is at odds with reality.

It is undoubtedly true that ACORN, like many nonprofits -- and not just commmunity groups but institutions like universities and hospitals as well -- could do a much better job of due diligence about what goes on inside the organization, and about being open and honest with authorities. (For instance: The brother of the group's founder embezzled $1 million, and no one bothered to inform law enforcement -- or the board.) And by now, since these allegations arise at least every two years, you'd think they could come up with some way to decrease the amount of fraudulent registrations collected.

But here's the fact of the matter, something I've learned over the past couple of years in conversations with prosecutors experienced in election-related issues: ACORN is not perpetrating voter fraud here. Rather, the fraud is being perpetrated upon ACORN.

The workers turning in these fraudulent registrations aren't trying to rig the election; they're trying to wring a little more money out of their employer. These workers aren't registering fake names that could really be used to show up and vote. They use cartoon characters and NFL players, and they pressure people to register twice. Some are even less smart about how they do this. In an interview last year, former U.S. attorney Bud Cummins -- one of those fired by the Bush administration in what turned into the U.S. attorneys scandal -- told me he'd seen examples of some workers simply running through the phone book. "You’d see something like Bud Smith, then Kate Smith … and then there was Smith Auto Body,” Cummins told me. If any of these fraudulent registrations were accepted, no one would show up on Election Day to make use of them.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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