I’ve been following the ACORN story, and trying, bit by bit, to understand it. The broad outlines are pretty clear:

“ACORN registers lots of lower income and/or minority voters. They operate all across the country and do a lot of things beside voter registration. What’s key to understand is their method. By and large they do not rely on volunteers to register voters. They hire people — often people with low incomes or even the unemployed. This has the dual effect of not only registering people but also providing some work and income for people who are out of work. But because a lot of these people are doing it for the money, inevitably, a few of them cut corners or even cheat. So someone will end up filling out cards for nonexistent names and some of those slip through ACORN’s own efforts to catch errors. (It’s important to note that in many of the recent ACORN cases that have gotten the most attention it’s ACORN itself that has turned the people in who did the fake registrations.) These reports start buzzing through the right-wing media every two years and every time the anecdotal reports of ‘thousands’ of fraudulent registrations turns out, on closer inspection, to be either totally bogus themselves or wildly exaggerated. So thousands of phony registrations ends up being, like, twelve.”

There a couple of key points here. First, as a lot of people have pointed out, voter registration fraud is not the same as fraudulently casting a ballot. There are a lot of safeguards in place to prevent people from casting fraudulent ballots, and submitting a fraudulent registration does not begin to mean that you will be able to cast a fraudulent ballot. First, you’d need to submit the fake registrations. Then you’d need to hope that they made it through the election officials’ screening. And then, as Rick Hasen writes in Slate:

“I would have to (…) pay a lot of other individuals to go to the polling place and claim to be Mary Poppins or Old Dead Bob, without any return guarantee –thanks to the secret ballot — that any of them will cast a vote for my preferred candidate. Those who do show up at the polls run the risk of being detected (“You’re not my neighbor Bob who passed away last year!”) and charged with a felony. And for what — $10?”

And besides all that, you’d have to hope that none of the large number of people you hired shoot their mouths off about it later. If you think about it, it’s a pretty labor-intensive and risky way to try to steal an election. Much easier and safer to rig an election machine, stuff a ballot box, or find some subtle way of intimidating the other side’s voters. This may be why there’s very little evidence of actual voter fraud.

Second, in any large organization that has a lot of workers registering people to vote, someone is going to get lazy and decide to turn in made-up registrations rather than real ones. That’s not a sign of organizational perfidy; it’s human nature. The important question, in the ACORN stories, is not: did some one of their many, many employees submit fake registrations? It’s: did ACORN knowingly try to get fake registrations accepted? and, if not: did it do everything it could have done to minimize the number of fake registrations, and to catch those that were submitted?

Third, a lot of news stories I’ve read have said that ACORN submitted fraudulent registration cards without noting that ACORN is often required by law to return all registration cards, even the ones filled out for “Mouse, Mickey”. (This is to prevent them from discarding, say, all the people from a party they don’t like, leaving the people whose cards they threw out believing that they had registered when in fact they were not.) ACORN does try to identify fraudulent registrations, and to mark them as fraudulent or suspicious when it turns them in. (They also fire people who submit fake registrations to them, and on at least some occasions turn them in to the election board.) Some of the coverage I’ve seen fails to mention whether the fake registrations ACORN submitted were flagged in this way or not.

Omitting this information is irresponsible: there’s a huge difference between ACORN submitting fraudulent registration cards in the hopes of sneaking them into the system, and ACORN turning in fraudulent registration cards in an envelope marked “Fraudulent Registration Cards; Please Investigate!”, because the law requires it to. The first is knowing fraud; the second is compliance with the law. The media should make it clear which of the two is going on.

Likewise, it would be good if the media would distinguish between cases that might possibly indicate an attempt by ACORN to register fraudulent voters and cases that couldn’t. The guy who registered 73 times, for instance, will not show up on voter registration rolls as 73 separate iterations of himself, all with the same address, driver’s license, etc. There is really no plausible story about how this could represent an attempt by ACORN (or anyone) to steal an election. Given the charges flying around, the media ought to make this clear.

That said, on to a few specific cases. I picked them more or less randomly, based on what I happened to read about when I was thinking of doing this. I tried to dig a bit deeper, to figure out whether or not the evidence pointed to any sort of systematic fraud. In particular, I wanted to know whether or not ACORN had flagged suspicious registrations, and whether or not it seemed to be cooperating with the authorities and generally trying to minimize fraud. I did this because I wanted to find some sort of evidence one way or another.

In the cases I’ve gone through, the takeaway seems to be: ACORN had flagged suspicious registrations; it was cooperating with authorities, there is no evidence that it was trying to submit fraudulent registrations, and plenty of evidence that it was trying not to. (E.g., firing people who submitted fake registrations to ACORN.) I do think ACORN ought to ask serious questions about its practice of paying people to register people to vote, and/or about its controls on its employees, though I understand why one might want to give low-income people the work. Details below the fold.

Indiana: The basic story:

“Lake County Republican Chairman John Curley wants a federal investigation into hundreds of voter registrations bearing fictitious signatures or the names of dead and underage people.

“Fraudulent applications are the workings of ACORN groups operating from Milwaukee and Chicago who are getting out the vote for Obama. I’m Republican, but I want everyone who should vote to vote. But I want a clean election,” Curley said at a Wednesday news conference.”

However, on closer inspection it’s not clear that ACORN did anything wrong:

“ACORN, the liberal-leaning community activist group, followed the law when it notified authorities that some of the voter registration applications it submitted in Lake County apparently were fraudulent. (…)

“We ID’d those applications as questionable,” Charles D. Jackson, spokesman for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, said of the Lake County applications.

“We turned them in three separate stacks: ones we had been able to verify, ones that were incomplete and ones that were questionable or suspicious.”

Jim Gavin, spokesman for Secretary of State Todd Rokita, Indiana’s top election official, confirmed that groups that conduct registration drives in the state must turn in all applications they collect.

Failure to do so, Gavin said, is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and up to one year in prison.

Ruthann Hoagland, assistant registration administrator with the Lake County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, confirmed that about 2,500 applications ACORN submitted were divided into three groups, as Jackson described.”

In this case, what happened is completely consistent with ACORN having done nothing untoward. They were required to turn in their forms, and they did; they had flagged forms that were incomplete or questionable. The specific case in Indiana that has gotten a lot of media play is a registration in the name of Jimmy Johns, which is a restaurant; ACORN has posted pdfs of the cover sheets on which they flagged this registration as problematic when they submitted it to the election board. It indicates that the canvasser who submitted it was fired. ACORN also says they turned that canvasser in to the authorities.

Las Vegas: The basic story:

“Members of a new task force designed to prevent voter fraud raided the Las Vegas office of an organization that works with low-income people on everything from voting to neighborhood improvements.

State investigators, armed with a search warrant, sought evidence of voter fraud at the office of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN, a Nevada Secretary of State’s office spokesman said today.

“This is part of an ongoing investigation by the multijurisdictional task force that we announced this past July,” Secretary of State Ross Miller said in a statement. “We said then that we would work aggressively to protect the process. We’re going to do everything possible to ensure that Nevada’s voter rolls are protected and to ensure that only those who are eligible can cast a ballot.”

There are allegations that some registration applications were completed with false information, while other applications attempted to register the same person multiple times, Miller said. (…)

ACORN had received a subpoena dated Sept. 19 requesting information on 15 employees, all of whose names had been included in packages previously submitted to election officials, [ACORN’s interim chief organizer Bertha] Lewis said. ACORN provided its personnel records on the 15 employees on Sept. 29, she said.

“For the past 10 months, any time ACORN has identified a potentially fraudulent application, we turn that application in to election officials separately and offer to provide election officials with the information they would need to pursue an investigation or prosecution of the individual,” Lewis said. “Election officials routinely ignored this information and failed to act.””


“Joe Camp, who oversaw the voter drive’s quality-control operation, said that whenever a batch of registrations didn’t seem kosher based on phone checks, they were submitted to the Clark County Election Department with a “Problematic Card Cover Sheet.” ACORN on Wednesday supplied examples of such submissions going back to April.

By law, ACORN could not simply not turn in a suspect registration, even if it was in the name of Mickey Mouse. It is a felony to discard or destroy voter registration forms, which are tracked with individual serial numbers.

Camp said 46 packets of especially suspicious forms, totaling about 700, were submitted, and more than 50 canvassers were fired. Henderson, the regional ACORN director, said the group wished legal action would have been taken against those people.”

You can read the affadavit submitted in support of Nevada’s search warrant on ACORN here (pdf; the ‘probable cause’ section begins on p. 11). A couple of things struck me about it. The first is that it is largely based on documents ACORN gave to Nevada’s investigator, and on his subsequent interviews with some of the ACORN ex-employees whose names he got from those documents. The documents ACORN provided came from its quality control program, which had identified problems with registrations submitted by these employees. There’s nothing in the affadavit about ACORN failing to cooperate; in fact, ACORN offered to turn over information on the ex-employees who had submitted fraudulent registrations for further investigation. There’s also nothing that explains why a warrant was needed.

Moreover, the various ex-employees of ACORN were all terminated when ACORN discovered that they had been submitting fraudulent registrations. And none of them says anything to suggest that ACORN encouraged this in any way. Instead, you get statements like this (pp. 14-15):

“JONES also stated that it was very hot outside when she was trying to get people to complete a form. JONES stated that many people she approached would not complete a form. JONES stated that as a result, she began asking people who had completed forms if they would complete forms for other people.”


“ANDERSON described that some of the canvassers hired by ACORN were “lazy crack-heads” who were not interested in working and just wanted the money.”

(Bear in mind that these are interviews with people who were fired by ACORN, and thus have no obvious motive to cover for the organization.)

There’s nothing in the affadavit that suggests complicity on ACORN’s part, at all.

New Mexico: TPMMuckraker has this one:

“Last week, as we noted at the time, the New Mexico GOP had publicly claimed that 28 people voted fraudulently in the Democratic primary, held in June, for a local race.

Then this morning, the RNC sent out a press release announcing a 3pm conference call with reporters “on the recent developments in New Mexico regarding ACORN.”

But at 11am, ACORN — the community organizing group that Republicans have been trying lately to turn into a voter fraud boogeyman — held a conference call of its own, asserting that local election officials had confirmed that the 28 people in question, mostly low-income Latinos, were valid voters.”


As I said, I think that it would be a good idea for ACORN to go over its quality control. But in the cases I tried to dig deeper in, there doesn’t seem to be anything to indicate a systematic effort to fraudulently register people, as opposed to a bunch of canvassers getting lazy. I think the media ought to be much, much clearer about this.

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