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Originally published Saturday, October 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Local ACORN group target of threats

The Seattle-area ACORN office has received vulgar and angry calls from people upset by its role in registering 1.3 million mostly poor and minority Americans nationwide to vote, but police say a break-in at the group's Burien offices was not politically motivated.

The Seattle-area ACORN office has received vulgar and angry calls from people upset by its role in registering 1.3 million mostly poor and minority Americans nationwide to vote, but police say a break-in at the group's Burien offices was not politically motivated.

Nationally, an ACORN community organizer received a death threat and the liberal-leaning voter registration group's Boston offices were vandalized Thursday.

Attorneys for ACORN, which stands for the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, were notifying the FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division of the incidents, said Brian Kettenring, a Florida-based spokesman for the group.

Republicans, including presidential candidate John McCain, have criticized the group repeatedly in recent days, alleging a widespread vote-fraud scheme, although they've provided little proof.

It was disclosed Thursday that the FBI is examining whether thousands of fraudulent voter-registration applications submitted by some ACORN workers were part of a systematic effort or isolated incidents.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama's campaign on Friday called for an independent prosecutor to look into the origin of the FBI inquiry.

As the issue of ACORN voter registrations fueled political rhetoric nationally, it was being downplayed locally.

"There were some people who just seemed to believe that it's a lot more complex than it is," said Patty Ludwig, an ACORN member who lives in Boulevard Park near Tukwila.

"We're going out and encouraging people to vote. Some people simply don't want everybody to vote who's eligible to, and that's a great pity."

The unpleasant phone calls and break-in on Wednesday night have prompted Ludwig to be more cautious coming to and from work, she said, but for the most part she feels people in the Seattle-area are supportive of ACORN.

The break-in at the Burien office was probably "a run-of-the-mill burglary," said King County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. John Urquhart.

The burglars took $300 in cash and some collectible silver dollars.

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In Boston, vandals broke into the group's offices and stole computers, said Kettenring, ACORN spokesman.

A senior ACORN staffer in Cleveland, after appearing on television this week, got an e-mail that said she "is going to have her life ended," Kettenring said.

And a female staffer in Providence, R.I., got a threatening call from someone who said "We know you get off work at 9," then uttered racial epithets, he said.

The incidents came after McCain charged in the final presidential debate Wednesday that ACORN's voter-registration drive "may be perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history" and may be "destroying the fabric of democracy."

Democrats counter that the GOP is trying to whip up fears of voter fraud so it can knock students and low-income minorities off the voter rolls to enhance McCain's chances of victory.

On Friday, Obama's legal counsel, Robert Bauer, wrote Attorney General Michael Mukasey, charging that the FBI inquiry is politically motivated and asking Mukasey to broaden a special prosecutor's investigation to examine its origin.

Kettenring said ACORN had received growing amounts of hate mail in recent weeks, but "the campaign debate sort of tipped it over to a scary point, where raising allegations of voter fraud went from a cynical campaign ploy to really inciting racial violence."

McCain's campaign didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Since McCain's remarks, ACORN's 87 offices across the country have received hundreds of hostile e-mails, many of them containing racial slurs, Kettenring said.

It's unclear whether the alleged threats violated federal law, but Jonah Goldman, the director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit legal organization that battles discrimination, argued that the Voting Rights Act should apply.

"Legitimate, eligible voters who sign up through these registration drives may be understandably intimidated and choose not to show up at the polls, and the Voting Rights Act prevents voter intimidation," Goldman said.

Last year, seven ACORN employees were charged in King County with filling out and submitting more than 1,800 fictitious voter-registration cards during a voter-registration drive in King and Pierce counties.

At least five have pleaded guilty.

No illegal votes were cast, and prosecutors said the employees filled out fraudulent forms to keep their jobs.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Emily Heffter contributed

to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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