ACORN Voter Registration Drive Investigated
by Matthew Madia, 11/7/2006
Voter registration drives sponsored by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) are being investigated by federal authorities and the Senate Finance Committee after allegations that fraudulent voter registration cards were submitted in four of its 17 state efforts. The group is cooperating with authorities and says misconduct by temporary workers appears to be at the root of the problem. ACORN, founded in 1970, is primarily dedicated to advocating for low-income Americans. It has been particularly active in registering low-income voters, and this year ran registration drives in 17 states. In October, allegations of problems with voter registration cards surfaced in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. According to the Associated Press, "In Franklin County [Ohio], prosecutors are looking at almost 400 cards the county elections board said included already registered voters or people with the wrong address." In Philadelphia, about 3,000 cards were rejected because of missing information or invalid addresses. On Nov. 2, the U.S. Attorney's office in St. Louis, MO, indicted four former-temporary voter registration workers employed by ACORN on felony voter fraud charges. In a Nov. 6 press release, ACORN announced it fired all four after an October internal review revealed problems and reported it to authorities. It has cooperated with the FBI inquiry with officials announcing, "Now we want to see these folks prosecuted to the full extent of the law." On Nov. 2, the Associated Press reported that election officials in St. Louis have found at least 1,500 cards that could have been fraudulent, including ones for dead and underage people. In Ohio, a dozen people have been subpoenaed in an investigation of fraudulent registration cards, and three may be charged with felony election fraud. ACORN has referred problem registrations to election authorities for investigation and has cleared suspicion from some forms with additional information. ACORN organizer Barbara Clark told the Columbus Dispatch that the group " provided photos of homes at addresses thought not to exist, and it discovered one potential voter who purposely listed an incorrect Social Security number because he feared identity theft." In Denver, CO, election officials sent about 200 voter registration cards with identical handwriting on signatures to the secretary of state's office for investigation. News of these charges caught the attention of Senate Finance Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R-IA), who has been active in investigating nonprofit organizations. Grassley proceeded to write ACORN National President Maude Hurd, asking 62 questions to determine whether or not the organization violated the law that grants nonprofits their tax-exempt status. Grassley expressed concern that "misuse of tax-exempt organizations for political and lobbying activities is a widespread problem." His letter also drew a connection between ACORN and the misuse of nonprofit organizations by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associates. Grassley requested ACORN provide vast information in a searchable, electronic format within nine days, and many of his questions had no apparent relationship to the organization's voter registration activities. The investigation's outcome remains unclear. Serious concerns have been raised about quality control in large scale voter registration drives such as those carried out by ACORN. Still equally serious concerns are raised that nonprofits will be discouraged from conducting voter registration drives, fearful of investigations if mistakes are made. The revelations of voter fraud may have a ripple effect on nonprofit speech rights. For example, a Nov. 6 opnion piece by Terence Scanlon of the Capital Research Center ran in The Examiner, maintaining that the incidents justify legislation that would disqualify any nonprofit that conducts voter registration drives or lobbies from applying for funds from a proposed federal affordable housing fund. ACORN has an affiliated community development corporation that has received federal housing funds in the past. The legislation referred to by Scanlon passed the House last year, but has not moved in the Senate. For more information on this proposal see OMB Watch Resource Center: New Nonprofit Gag Provision in GSE Bill. ACORN has been operating large-scale voter registration drives for a number of years. In 2004, the group registered over 1 million voters. ACORN was accused of fraud in 2004 for activities in Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina and Virginia and in 2003 in Missouri. According to a statement from the organization, however, these allegations were proven false. "In Ohio, allegations against ACORN (and other organizations helping minorities register to vote) were contained in a lawsuit funded by the Free Enterprise Coalition. The plaintiffs withdrew the suit as ACORN began discovery." In 2004, as in 2006, they cooperated with prosecutors to convict employees who submitted duplicate registrations or other problematic cards.