ACORN controversy: Voter fraud or mudslinging?

Associated Press | 10/22/2008, 4:54 a.m.

The stories are almost comical: Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, registered to vote on Nov. 4. The entire lineup of the Dallas Cowboys football team, signed up to go the polls — in Nevada.

But no one in either presidential campaign is laughing. Not publicly, anyway.

Republicans, led by John McCain, are alleging widespread voter fraud. The Democrats and Barack Obama say the controversy is preposterous and is just political mudslinging.

In the middle is the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN, a grassroots community group that has led liberal causes since it formed in 1970. This year, ACORN hired more than 13,000 part-time workers and sent them out in 21 states to sign up voters in minority and poor neighborhoods.

They submitted 1.3 million registration cards to local election officials. Along the way, bogus ones appeared — signed in the names of cartoon characters, professional football players and scores of others bearing the same handwriting.

And in recent days, those phony registrations have exploded into Republican condemnations of far-ranging misconduct, and a relatively obscure community activist group took a starring role, right behind Joe the Plumber, in the final presidential debate.

Looking beyond the smoke and fire, the raging argument boils down to essentially this:

Is ACORN, as McCain charged, perpetuating voter fraud that could be “destroying the fabric of democracy”? Or are Republicans trying to keep the disadvantaged, who tend to be Democrats, from casting ballots in a hotly contested presidential race that has drawn record numbers of new voters?

As supporters on both sides make their cases, tensions surrounding the group took a more serious turn last week in Boston, where police are investigating a possible burglary at ACORN’s Dorchester offices.

Chris Leonard, an official with the group’s Boston branch, told the Boston Herald that several computers were stolen from the Dorchester site either late last Wednesday or early last Thursday.

According to police, the alarm had been ripped from the wall, three computers had been stolen and wires had been damaged. The report says two downstairs offices also were ransacked, two vending machines were damaged and change stolen from them.

Leonard says he does not know if the break-in was politically motivated, but called the timing “suspicious.”

Noemi “Mimi” Ramos, ACORN Massachusetts’ head organizer, shared her suspicions with the Dorchester Reporter.

“We think a lot of this may have to do with what’s happening nationally,” Ramos told the Reporter in a phone interview last Thursday.

By legal definition, to commit voter fraud means a person would have to present some kind of documentation at the polls — a driver’s license, a phone bill or another form of ID — that bears the name of Mickey Mouse, for example. To do so risks a fine and imprisonment under state laws.

Submitting fake registration cards is another matter. Local law enforcement agencies in about a dozen states are investigating fake registrations submitted by ACORN workers. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that the FBI will be reviewing those cases.