Who’s Afraid of ACORN, and Why

Yesterday I posted here on Rooflines to explain the back-story behind the latest round of accusations about ACORN and voter fraud. Today, the McCain-Palin campaign released the Web ad below […]

Yesterday I posted here on Rooflines to explain the back-story behind the latest round of accusations about ACORN and voter fraud.

Today, the McCain-Palin campaign released the Web ad below attacking Barack Obama for his ties to ACORN.

It’s important to understand the deep roots of the right’s fear and loathing of ACORN and the lengths they’ve gone to to stifle the group’s efforts to broaden Americans’ electoral participation.

Last summer, I reported in Shelterforce magazine on the Republican-directed vendetta against voter registration, orchestrated from the White House against those, like the grass-roots anti-poverty group ACORN, who have a history of working to register poor and minority voters. The vendetta backfired and helped lead to the firing of New Mexico’s U.S. attorney David C. Iglesias, who infuriated state GOP operatives for failing to go after voter-fraud allegations with sufficient zeal.

ACORN came under White House fire after registering more than 1.6 million voters in the past two national elections: mostly poor and minority people who tend to vote Democratic, and mostly in swing states. Republican operatives went after ACORN hard, with a media smear campaign, trumped-up lawsuits in Florida, New Mexico, and Ohio, and pressure on state law-enforcement officials to file criminal charges against the group. Days before the 2006 election, a U.S. attorney in Kansas City brought a voter-fraud indictment against four people registering voters for ACORN, spurring a congressional investigation led by Iowa’s Republican Sen. Charles Grassley.

The GOP voter-fraud vendetta might have remained exactly where Bush loyalists wanted it — below the radar of the press — had it not been for the scandal surrounding the firing of eight U. S. attorneys, including David C. Iglesias of New Mexico. Iglesias lost his job in December 2005 after he declined to prosecute a voter-fraud case against ACORN, which had been registering large numbers of voters in the state’s low-income and largely minority neighborhoods in 2004. Prominent New Mexico Republicans, including U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, had repeatedly complained to chief White House political strategist Karl Rove about Iglesias’ failure to bring voter-fraud indictments. Once Iglesias said he couldn’t prove a case against ACORN, his days were numbered.

ACORN became a target because of its successful voter-registration work. As the 2004 election approached, then-Attorney-General John Ashcroft launched a broad initiative to crack down on supposed voter fraud in battleground states, including Florida, Missouri, Ohio, and New Mexico, where ACORN was making headway registering voters. In all of those states, Republicans filed suits against ACORN for voter fraud, and, in every case, ACORN was exonerated.

Nevertheless, conservative media continued to smear the group. In October of 2004, right-wing news outlets pounced on a story about the organization mishandling voter forms and, according to Rush Limbaugh, “trying to register voters two and three times.” Two years later, after the 2006 election, the Wall Street Journal promoted claims that ACORN was under scrutiny for election irregularities with one headline blaring, “A union-backed outfit faces charges of election fraud.” An editorial included an allegation — that ACORN gave cocaine to a worker in exchange for fraudulent registrations — that was a complete fabrication.

After Al Gore beat George W. Bush in New Mexico by just 366 votes in 2000, the state became the site of a bitter battle over voter registration. By the fall of 2004, as the race between Bush and John Kerry tightened, ACORN had signed up more than 35,000 voters statewide. But one of the new voters turned out to be a 13-year-old son of a Republican policeman. State Republicans filed a lawsuit against ACORN.

The suit was dismissed for lack of evidence, Iglesias announced at a press conference that he would look into the matter, declaring, “It appears that mischief is afoot, and questions are lurking in the shadows.” But, by January 2005, Iglesias concluded that his voter-fraud task force had not turned up enough evidence to bring a fraud case against ACORN. By early December 2005, he had been fired.

In theory, the U.S. attorney scandal should have made it harder for the Bush administration to continue to level baseless charges of voter-fraud in an effort to challenge the registration of poor and minority voters. But the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division had hired 11 lawyers from the conservative Federalist society, including two people from the Bush-Cheney campaigns.

The intense media attention to Attorneygate didn’t curb the GOP penchant to play the politics of voter fraud. To hold on to the White House, right-wing Republicans can’t afford to quit using the right-wing echo chamber including FBI, U.S. attorneys, and Fox News to harass advocacy groups such as ACORN for signing up new voters.

To be sure, ACORN was not stopped in its tracks. As Matt Henderson, one of ACORN’s organizers, told me, “We will never be intimidated by baseless legal attacks.”

In 2008, to the distress of the Republicans, ACORN mounted its current voter-registration drive. Along with Project Vote, ACORN undertook an aggressive voter-registration campaign in 16 states including Ohio, Florida, Michigan, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania to help close the historic gaps in the American electorate that have misrepresented the true demographic breakdown of the American population.

Historically, the average voter has been older and wealthier than the average American. With registration and voting rates of low-income Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, and youths significantly lagging behind other demographics, the new voters that Project Vote and ACORN helped register came primarily from these historically disenfranchised groups.

It is sad that more than 40 years after passage of the voting rights act, the efforts by the Bush White House and the right-wing Republicans continue to intimidate minority voters. It reminds us that the agenda of the civil-rights movement remains unfinished. The outcome of the 2008 presidential race may well hinge on whether the right-wing strategy or the ACORN strategy prevails.

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