October 5, 2006 – Vol. 42, No. 8
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Allegations trip up voting rights group

Andrew Welsh-Huggins

An advocacy group that registered more than a million voters two years ago is facing new allegations of voter fraud and sloppy work just weeks before crucial midterm elections.

Philadelphia’s municipal voter registration office has rejected about 3,000 cards submitted by ACORN — the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — since April because of missing information or invalid addresses.

Denver County election officials forwarded about 200 cards to the secretary of state’s office after finding similar handwriting on signatures.

In Ohio, election officials in three of the state’s largest counties have cited problems with hundreds of voter registration cards. ACORN is accused of submitting cards with nonexistent addresses, forged signatures and, in one case, for someone who died seven years ago.

“In my opinion, there’s a lot of words but little action in terms of fixing the problem,” said Matt Damschroder, elections board director in Franklin County, Ohio.

ACORN, which has about 220,000 members nationally, registered 1.2 million people to vote in 2004 and is running voter registration drives in 17 states this year.

The nonprofit group dispatches workers and volunteers to poor neighborhoods, gas stations, courthouses and other places to sign up new voters.

Although it is nonpartisan, ACORN recruits new voters in heavily Democratic poor and minority neighborhoods. The group says those areas are the most underrepresented in the political process. Republicans are among ACORN’s loudest critics, while Democrats largely support its work. In July, Hilary Rodham Clinton, a potential 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, addressed the group’s national convention in Columbus.

Democrats hope to regain control of the U.S. House and narrow or erase the GOP majority in the Senate on Nov. 7.

ACORN was accused of fraud in 2004 in Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina and Virginia, and in 2003 in Missouri.

Prosecution is rare, though, and federal lawsuits against the group were dismissed in Florida. ACORN says it’s working to reduce problems, and officials promise to fire any worker found committing fraud.

“We’ll continue to personally encourage people to register to vote and exercise their franchise, and we’re going to continue to stand up for people’s voter rights,” said Kevin Whelan, a spokesman for the New Orleans-based group.

Such statements do little to appease critics. Even groups supporting the organization’s efforts question why fraud allegations keep cropping up.

“They’re sort of their own worst enemy,” said Bill Faith, who directs Ohio’s largest homeless advocacy group and shares many of ACORN’s goals.

“They want low-income people to register to vote, but because of the kind of problems that come from their program, it provokes a reaction from the Legislature that actually makes it harder to run such programs,” Faith said.

The Denver Election Commission says it’s been unsuccessful in working with ACORN to reduce problems with voter registration cards. Colorado officials had investigated similar concerns about the group’s registration cards two years ago.

ACORN says it meets regularly with election officials to address concerns.

“We hold our workers to a very high standard. We ensure they make every vote count and we’re going to continue to do that work,” said Ben Hanna, head organizer in Colorado.

Ohio prosecutors are looking at almost 400 cards that the Franklin County elections board says included already registered voters or listed the wrong address.

The Franklin elections board is also looking at hundreds of other ACORN cards with alleged irregularities. The Hamilton County board is concerned about errors and missing information on hundreds of ACORN cards, while problems with about a dozen cards were reported in Summit County.

ACORN is continuing its largely successful legal campaign to reduce voting obstacles for the poor.

In September, a federal judge in Ohio threw out a requirement that individuals who register voters — instead of groups — must turn in the completed forms, in a lawsuit brought by ACORN and other voting rights groups.

ACORN won a preliminary victory last Thursday in a similar suit against Georgia’s voter registration laws. It won a similar case in Washington state this year and in Maryland last year.

ACORN employee Carlos McCoy recently stood in a steady rain outside the Franklin County Courthouse, politely but assertively asking person after person if they were registered to vote.

McCoy, a 17-year-old high school senior who has worked similar jobs since 2004, spent a few days registering voters for $9 an hour before school started.

He attributes problems with other ACORN workers to inexperience and asking the wrong questions. He says he took the job for the money, but also because he likes being involved in politics and community organizing. A resident of the city’s poor south side, he says the work affects his life.

“You want where you live to be taken care of,” McCoy said.

(Associated Press)

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