Cracking the ACORN Case

Acorn + Mickey Mouse = The Most Adorable Political "Scandal" in Recent Memory.

It may also be one of the most pointless.

In recent days, conservative activists and right-leaning media outlets like FOX News and Matt Drudge--who led his influential site with the Mickey Mouse story yesterday afternoon--have tried to raise a ruckus over the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a liberal nonprofit/lobbying group--it typically fights on behalf of poor people for free school lunches and government housing--that also spearheaded one of this cycle's largest (and most controversial) voter registration drives. Unless I'm mistaken, the conspiracy theory goes something like this: Obama "has ties" to Acorn; Acorn is trying to steal the election; therefore, by the transitive property, Obama is also trying to steal the election. To see why this makes no sense, it'll be helpful to break the equation down into three bite-sized pieces.

I. Obama Has Ties to ACORN: This is true. As the New York Times recently reported, "in 1995, Obama was on a team of lawyers that represented Acorn in a lawsuit to compel Illinois to comply with federal laws intended to enhance access to the polls"; the Justice Department "was on the same side as ACORN in the lawsuit." Later, "Obama conducted two leadership training sessions of roughly an hour each for ACORN’s Chicago affiliate over a three-year period." Finally, the Obama campaign made (in February) a $832,598 payment to Citizens Services, Inc., a consulting firm affiliated with ACORN; Chicago initially reported that the money was for “staging, sound, lighting” before amending its FEC reports to reflect the fact that it was spent on get-out-the-vote efforts. About $80,000 of the $832,598 went to ACORN.

Of course, there's no proof here that Team Obama coordinated with ACORN on registering voters or anything. Still, if ACORN were committing voter fraud, that large February payment would certainly land the candidate in hot water--deservedly so. The key word, however, is "if." Which brings us to...

II. ACORN Is Trying to Steal the Election. This is not even remotely true. To date, there has been no shortage of charges against ACORN: Ohio in 2004; Colorado in 2005; Kansas City, Missouri in 2006 and Washington state in 2007. This year alone, authorities are investigating the organization's branches in Lake County, Indiana; Cuyahoga County, Ohio; Michigan; Nevada and Missouri. But not a single case alleges that ACORN is attempting to influence the outcome of the election. So why all the fuss? Because people are confusing voter fraud (a dangerous offense) with voter registration fraud (a petty crime). ACORN stands accused of the latter. The Politico's Ben Smith explains nicely:

The former would be, say, voting the cemeteries or stuffing the ballot boxes. This has happened occasionally in American history, though I can think of recent instances only in rare local races. Practically speaking, this can most easily be done by whoever is actually administering the election, which is why partisan observers carefully oversee the vote-counting process.

The latter is putting the names of fake voters on the rolls, something that happens primarily when organizations, like Acorn, pay contractors for new voter registrations. That can be a crime, and it messes up the voter files, but there's virtually no evidence these imaginary people then vote in November. The current stories about Acorn don't even allege a plan to affect the November vote.

I'll use Mickey Mouse to demonstrate how ACORN has engaged in voter registration fraud. In Florida, ACORN pays local workers $8 an hour to gather 20 voter registrations a day. One of these workers, seeking to meet his quota and snap up his paycheck, wrote down "Mickey Mouse," forged a signature and turned his form; others have submitted forms with made-up names, repeated names, "unreadable handwriting, missing information, signatures that didn't match those on file, altered dates of birth or Social Security numbers." Following protocol, ACORN has tried to find the incomplete, duplicate or bogus forms and fire the employees who submitted them. But before sending every application to the state--which is required by law--the group unfortunately failed to flag a few. 

This has undoubtedly made life more difficult for the local officials tasked with verifying applications, and ACORN should be held accountable. But it can't possibly change who's voting on Election Day. Mickey Mouse isn't going to show up at the polls. Voters can't vote if they don't exist. People who are registered twice will only be allowed to vote once. Annoying as they are, these inconsistencies can't affect the outcome of the election. They can only cause headaches.

For voter registration fraud to become voter fraud, ACORN would have to be engaged in a widespread, covert effort to flood the polls with ineligible voters impersonating their eligible peers. That would require a lot of top-down coordination: identifying willing impersonators, forging documents, etc. No one has accused ACORN of anything remotely like this. In fact, ACORN seems to have the opposite problem; the fact that it failed to filter some obviously fake registration forms from its 1.3 million applications suggests, if anything, a lack of organization. That's one reason actual voter fraud is extremely rare. As Art Levine reports, "only 24 people were convicted of illegal voting in federal elections between 2002 and 2005 -- and nobody was even charged by Justice with impersonating another voter. (The Justice Department declined to answer questions about more recent fraud prosecutions.) And despite the anti-immigrant frenzy fueling photo-ID laws, only 14 noncitizens were convicted of illegally voting in federal elections from 2002 through 2005 -- mostly because of their ignorance of election law." Even then, it's a stretch to say the group that registered a lawbreaking voter should be held responsible for his or her actions.

III. Obama is Trying to Steal the Election: Back to the transitive property. If Obama has ties to ACORN but ACORN ISN'T trying to steal the election, how could Obama possibly be cheating? If Obama wins on Nov. 4, expect his opponents to claim that he climbed to victory on a mountain of fraudulent votes. But don't believe them--unless you believe that Mickey Mouse actually exists. And votes. Without anybody stopping him.