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Originally published October 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 15, 2008 at 4:24 PM

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Voter-registration group ACORN focus in presidential politics

ACORN, a community-organizing group that has operated for nearly 40 years outside the national spotlight, finds itself a central issue in...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — ACORN, a community-organizing group that has operated for nearly 40 years outside the national spotlight, finds itself a central issue in the presidential campaign.

GOP officials and advisers to Sen. John McCain have sought to paint the group — which focuses on low-income housing, voter registration, the minimum wage and other issues — as radical and have accused it of playing a role in the economic crisis and fomenting voter fraud. At the same time, the McCain campaign has sought to tie the group to Sen. Barack Obama.

Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz called ACORN a "quasi-criminal group" last week, charging the group was committing fraud during its voter-registration drives.

"It's pretty shocking that anyone would say such a thing," said Bertha Lewis, interim chief organizer for National ACORN.

Media reports have cited problems in several states, including Washington, in which registration cards submitted by ACORN — the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — were incomplete or had false or duplicate names or were turned in without a person's knowledge.

Much of the political attention has stemmed from a program in Nevada, where ACORN hired 59 inmates to help register voters. The state attorney general halted the program. Nevada authorities last week seized ACORN records after accusing the group of submitting fraudulent registration forms.

State officials in North Carolina and county officials in Missouri also are investigating ACORN's registration submissions.

ACORN routinely notifies local officials of incomplete or suspicious registration cards, Lewis said. She said local election officials sometimes use those cards to "come back weeks or months later and accuse us of deliberately turning in phony cards."

Lewis said "groups threatened by our historic success" have gone after ACORN because of whom the group registers: As many as 70 percent of the new voters are minorities and half are younger than 30.

ACORN has conducted a registration drive this fall that has added 1.3 million new voters to the rolls in 18 states, most notably in the presidential-swing states of Ohio (247,335) and Florida (151,812, mostly in Orange, Broward and Miami-Dade counties), but also in targeted congressional races in solidly Republican states like Texas (42,695) and Democratic dominated states like California (39,570).

"Out of 13,000 workers, there were inevitably a few who decided they'd pad their hours by duplicating a card and filling out another one or making up a name," said Kevin Whelan, an ACORN spokesman.

ACORN claims to be nonpartisan but its political agenda tilts Democratic on affordable and fair housing, health care and education reforms.

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The McCain campaign also has sought to link ACORN to the financial crisis because the group lobbied for passage of the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977, which required banks to try to increase lending to low-income homebuyers.

But ACORN officials, supported by several economists, say it is absurd to blame the crisis on the Community Reinvestment Act, which has been in place for decades.

Warning that Republicans in the past have employed "voter-suppression tactics," Obama told reporters at a resort near Toledo, Ohio, where he is preparing for tonight's debate. "Let's make sure everybody is voting, everybody is registered, everybody is doing this in a lawful way."

Election-law experts say there is a big difference between submitting bad registration cards and casting a fraudulent vote. Thanks to new rules, it is unlikely that bad names will be added to the voter rolls or lead to fraudulent votes, they say.

"Mickey Mouse may show up on a registration list, but he's not likely to vote," said law professor Daniel P. Tokaji of Ohio State University.

Several employees of ACORN were charged in the biggest voter-registration fraud scheme in Washington state history, involving more than 1,800 fictitious voter-registration cards submitted during a 2006 registration drive in King and Pierce counties.

Also

A federal appeals court Tuesday ordered Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, to set up a system by Friday to verify the eligibility of new voters and make the information available to the state's 88 county election boards. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court ruling that Brunner must use other government records to check new voters for fraud.

Information from The Associated Press and Seattle Times archives is included in this report

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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