ACORN controversy: Voter fraud or mudslinging?

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

Accusations of stolen votes have a long history in presidential elections. In the 2000 recount debacle, Republicans claimed illegal ballots were cast. Democrats contended that legal ballots were thrown out. In 2004, when Ohio gave the presidency to George W. Bush, Democrats charged that long lines and malfunctioning machines in that state led to an inaccurate count.

But in this contest, involving the first African American in American history with a real chance at becoming president, the vitriol is particularly pointed.

“This is all just one big head-fake,” said Tova Wang of the government watchdog group Common Cause. “What silliness this is, at this point. It’s all about creating this perception that there is a tremendous problem with voter fraud in this country, and it’s not true.”

During a campaign appearance last Friday, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin repeated McCain’s recent claims that Obama has close ties to ACORN.

“You deserve to know,” Palin told thousands in a park north of Cincinnati. “This group needs to learn that you here in Ohio won’t let them turn the Buckeye State into the ACORN State.”

Obama helped represent ACORN in a successful 1995 suit against the state of Illinois, which forced enactment of the so-called motor-voter law, making it easier for people to register vote. Obama said last week that he had “nothing to do with” ACORN’s massive voter registration drive.

ACORN spokesman Brian Kettering retaliated against the Republican charges last week in a series of conference calls and interviews.

“What we’re seeing is the manufacture of a crisis, and attempts to smear Sen. Obama with it,” Kettering said. “It gives you an excuse should you lose or if there’s a contested outcome of the election.”

Voter fraud is rare in the United States, according to a 2007 report by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Based on reviews of voter fraud claims at the federal and state level, the center’s report asserted most problems were caused by things like technological glitches, clerical errors or mistakes made by voters and by election officials.

“It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than he will impersonate another voter at the polls,” the report said.

Alex Keyssar, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, calls the current controversy “chapter 22 in a drama that’s been going on awhile. The pattern is that nothing much ever comes from this. There have been no known cases of people voting fraudulently.”

“What we’ve seen,” Keyssar said, “is sloppiness and someone’s idea of a stupid joke, like registering as Donald Duck.”

ACORN officials have repeatedly claimed that their own quality control workers were the first to discover problematic ballots. In every state investigating bad registrations, ACORN tipped off local officials to bogus or incomplete cards, spokesman Kettering said.

Many states require that all registrations be submitted to local voting officials so that election directors are in charge of vetting problem ballots, not the groups collecting them.