Michael Winship sees the ACORN "election fraud" story as one of the urban legends that come up every election cycle.
ACORN and election fraud. Hang on. As soon as I can get the alligator that crawled out of my toilet back into the New York City sewers where it belongs, I can turn my attention to this very important topic.
You see, the ACORN "election fraud" story is one of those urban legends, like fake moon landings and alligators in the sewers, and it appears three or four weeks before every recent national election with the regularity of the swallows returning to Capistrano. First, the basics: ACORN, which stands for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, is an activist group working with low- and moderate-income families to, among many other things, register voters. To do this, they hire people to go around signing up the unregistered, killing two birds with one stone - giving employment to people who need it (some with criminal records) and providing the opportunity to vote to members of minority communities whose voices all too often go unheard.
What happens is that some of those hired to do the registering, who are paid by the name, make people up. As a result, you'll discover that among the registrants are such obvious fakes as Mickey Mouse and the starting line-up of the Dallas Cowboys, among others.
This is where the Republican meme kicks in. As they have in past elections (although now louder and more angrily than ever), the G.O.P. has made ACORN the red flag du jour as the party tries to mobilize its conservative base and, allegedly, attempts to suppress the vote and distract attention from accusations of election tampering made against them, too.
The charge is that these fake registrations will create havoc at the polls. On Tuesday morning, former Republican Sens. John Danforth and Warren Rudman, chairs of Senator McCain's Honest and Open Elections Committee, held a press conference and described the results of the bad seeds in ACORN's registration program as "a potential nightmare." Danforth said he was concerned "that this election night and the days that follow will be a rerun of 2000, and even worse than 2000."
John McCain raised it at Wednesday night's final debate and went further, adding, "We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama's relationship with ACORN, who [sic] is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy Ã‰"
Obama replied, "ACORN is a community organization. Apparently, what they have done is they were paying people to go out and register folks. And apparently, some of the people who were out there didn't really register people; they just filled out a bunch of names. Had nothing to do with us. We were not involved."
Which is not to say Obama has not been associated with ACORN in the recent past. He has. As he said in the debate, as a lawyer, he joined with the group in partnership with the US Justice Department to implement a motor voter registration law in Illinois - allowing folks to register to vote at their local DMV. His work as a community organizer bought him into contact with ACORN, the organization received money from the Woods Fund while he was a board member there, and his presidential campaign gave ACORN more than $800,000 to help with get-out-the-vote campaigns during the primary season - but not, apparently, for registration drives.
All of this distracts from several important points. ACORN has registered 1.3 million voters and maintains that in virtually every instance it is ACORN that has reported the incidents of fraud.
As the organization asserted in a response to Senator McCain, "ACORN hired 13,000 field workers to register people to vote. In any endeavor of this size, some people will engage in inappropriate conduct. ACORN has a zero tolerance policy and terminated any field workers caught engaging in questionable activity. At the end of the day, as ACORN is paying these people to register voters, it is ACORN that is defrauded."
Arrests have been made, as well they should be.
Add to this the simple fact that registration fraud is not election fraud. Seventy-five made-up people who are registered as, say, "Brad Pitt," are not likely going to show up at some polling place on November 4 to vote in the election. Because they don't exist. (Besides, Angelina would never give them time off from babysitting duties.)
Granted, there are ways to mail in an absentee ballot under a fake name and, too, from time to time some joker is going to come to the polls and try to bluff his or her way in. But despite the charge that thousands and thousands of fakes will flood the machines and throw off the count, it does not happen very often. And according to ACORN, "Even RNC [Republican National Committee] General Counsel Sean Cairncross has recently acknowledged he is not aware of a single improper vote cast as a result of bad cards submitted in the course of an organized voter registration effort."
Not that this has stopped the G.O.P. from banging the same drum every national election. And amnesiac members of the media and some government agencies from buying into it every time. Last year, The New York Times reported that the federal Election Assistance Commission, created by the Help America Vote Act, legislation enacted after the Florida debacle, was told by a pair of experts - one Republican, the other described as having "liberal leanings" - that there was not that much fraud to be found. But their conclusions were downplayed.
As per the Times, "Though the original report said that among experts 'there is widespread but not unanimous agreement that there is little polling place fraud,' the final version of the report released to the public concluded in its executive summary that 'there is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud.'"
Which raises the ongoing investigation of the Justice Department's firing of those eight US attorneys shortly after President Bush's re-election. It shouldn't be forgotten that despite official explanations, half of them were let go after refusing to prosecute vote fraud charges demanded by Republicans. The attorneys had determined there was little or no evidence of skullduggery; certainly not enough to prosecute.
(In an interview with Talking Points Memo on Thursday, one of those fired attorneys, David Iglesias, reacted to reports that the FBI has launched an investigation of ACORN: "I'm astounded that this issue is being trotted out again. Based on what I saw in 2004 and 2006, it's a scare tactic.")
What's equally if not more scary are continued allegations of Republican attempts at "caging" minority voters - making challenge lists of African- and Hispanic-Americans registered in heavily Democratic districts. Just this week, a federal judge in Michigan ruled that voters could not be purged from the rolls in that state simply because their mailing address was invalid - this followed a failed attempt by a Michigan Republican county chairman to use a list of foreclosed homes as the basis of voter challenges.
This comes on the heels of a recent report from the Brennan Center at New York University documenting how state officials - often with the best of intentions - purge huge numbers of perfectly legal voters from the rolls.
As my colleague Bill Moyers reported, "Hundreds of thousands of legal voters may have been dumped in recent years, many without ever being notified." The report describes a "process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation."
Hardly reassuring words if you want democracy to work, and sadly, not an urban legend, but the simple truth.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program "Bill Moyers Journal," which airs Friday nights on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.