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Tilting at Windmills

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October 21, 2008
By: Hilzoy


I've been following the ACORN story, and trying, bit by bit, to understand it. The broad outlines are pretty clear:

"ACORN registers lots of lower income and/or minority voters. They operate all across the country and do a lot of things beside voter registration. What's key to understand is their method. By and large they do not rely on volunteers to register voters. They hire people -- often people with low incomes or even the unemployed. This has the dual effect of not only registering people but also providing some work and income for people who are out of work. But because a lot of these people are doing it for the money, inevitably, a few of them cut corners or even cheat. So someone will end up filling out cards for nonexistent names and some of those slip through ACORN's own efforts to catch errors. (It's important to note that in many of the recent ACORN cases that have gotten the most attention it's ACORN itself that has turned the people in who did the fake registrations.) These reports start buzzing through the right-wing media every two years and every time the anecdotal reports of 'thousands' of fraudulent registrations turns out, on closer inspection, to be either totally bogus themselves or wildly exaggerated. So thousands of phony registrations ends up being, like, twelve."

There a couple of key points here. First, as a lot of people have pointed out, voter registration fraud is not the same as fraudulently casting a ballot. There are a lot of safeguards in place to prevent people from casting fraudulent ballots, and submitting a fraudulent registration does not begin to mean that you will be able to cast a fraudulent ballot. First, you'd need to submit the fake registrations. Then you'd need to hope that they made it through the election officials' screening. And then, as Rick Hasen writes in Slate:

"I would have to (...) pay a lot of other individuals to go to the polling place and claim to be Mary Poppins or Old Dead Bob, without any return guarantee --thanks to the secret ballot -- that any of them will cast a vote for my preferred candidate. Those who do show up at the polls run the risk of being detected ("You're not my neighbor Bob who passed away last year!") and charged with a felony. And for what -- $10?"

And besides all that, you'd have to hope that none of the large number of people you hired shoot their mouths off about it later. If you think about it, it's a pretty labor-intensive and risky way to try to steal an election. Much easier and safer to rig an election machine, stuff a ballot box, or find some subtle way of intimidating the other side's voters. This may be why there's very little evidence of actual voter fraud.

Second, in any large organization that has a lot of workers registering people to vote, someone is going to get lazy and decide to turn in made-up registrations rather than real ones. That's not a sign of organizational perfidy; it's human nature. The important question, in the ACORN stories, is not: did some one of their many, many employees submit fake registrations? It's: did ACORN knowingly try to get fake registrations accepted? and, if not: did it do everything it could have done to minimize the number of fake registrations, and to catch those that were submitted?

Third, a lot of news stories I've read have said that ACORN submitted fraudulent registration cards without noting that ACORN is often required by law to return all registration cards, even the ones filled out for "Mouse, Mickey". (This is to prevent them from discarding, say, all the people from a party they don't like, leaving the people whose cards they threw out believing that they had registered when in fact they were not.) ACORN does try to identify fraudulent registrations, and to mark them as fraudulent or suspicious when it turns them in. (They also fire people who submit fake registrations to them, and on at least some occasions turn them in to the election board.) Some of the coverage I've seen fails to mention whether the fake registrations ACORN submitted were flagged in this way or not.

Omitting this information is irresponsible: there's a huge difference between ACORN submitting fraudulent registration cards in the hopes of sneaking them into the system, and ACORN turning in fraudulent registration cards in an envelope marked "Fraudulent Registration Cards; Please Investigate!", because the law requires it to. The first is knowing fraud; the second is compliance with the law. The media should make it clear which of the two is going on.

Likewise, it would be good if the media would distinguish between cases that might possibly indicate an attempt by ACORN to register fraudulent voters and cases that couldn't. The guy who registered 73 times, for instance, will not show up on voter registration rolls as 73 separate iterations of himself, all with the same address, driver's license, etc. There is really no plausible story about how this could represent an attempt by ACORN (or anyone) to steal an election. Given the charges flying around, the media ought to make this clear.

That said, on to a few specific cases. I picked them more or less randomly, based on what I happened to read about when I was thinking of doing this. I tried to dig a bit deeper, to figure out whether or not the evidence pointed to any sort of systematic fraud. In particular, I wanted to know whether or not ACORN had flagged suspicious registrations, and whether or not it seemed to be cooperating with the authorities and generally trying to minimize fraud. I did this because I wanted to find some sort of evidence one way or another.

In the cases I've gone through, the takeaway seems to be: ACORN had flagged suspicious registrations; it was cooperating with authorities, there is no evidence that it was trying to submit fraudulent registrations, and plenty of evidence that it was trying not to. (E.g., firing people who submitted fake registrations to ACORN.) I do think ACORN ought to ask serious questions about its practice of paying people to register people to vote, and/or about its controls on its employees, though I understand why one might want to give low-income people the work. Details below the fold.

Indiana: The basic story:

"Lake County Republican Chairman John Curley wants a federal investigation into hundreds of voter registrations bearing fictitious signatures or the names of dead and underage people.

"Fraudulent applications are the workings of ACORN groups operating from Milwaukee and Chicago who are getting out the vote for Obama. I'm Republican, but I want everyone who should vote to vote. But I want a clean election," Curley said at a Wednesday news conference."

However, on closer inspection it's not clear that ACORN did anything wrong:

"ACORN, the liberal-leaning community activist group, followed the law when it notified authorities that some of the voter registration applications it submitted in Lake County apparently were fraudulent. (...)

"We ID'd those applications as questionable," Charles D. Jackson, spokesman for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, said of the Lake County applications.

"We turned them in three separate stacks: ones we had been able to verify, ones that were incomplete and ones that were questionable or suspicious."

Jim Gavin, spokesman for Secretary of State Todd Rokita, Indiana's top election official, confirmed that groups that conduct registration drives in the state must turn in all applications they collect.

Failure to do so, Gavin said, is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and up to one year in prison.

Ruthann Hoagland, assistant registration administrator with the Lake County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, confirmed that about 2,500 applications ACORN submitted were divided into three groups, as Jackson described."

In this case, what happened is completely consistent with ACORN having done nothing untoward. They were required to turn in their forms, and they did; they had flagged forms that were incomplete or questionable. The specific case in Indiana that has gotten a lot of media play is a registration in the name of Jimmy Johns, which is a restaurant; ACORN has posted pdfs of the cover sheets on which they flagged this registration as problematic when they submitted it to the election board. It indicates that the canvasser who submitted it was fired. ACORN also says they turned that canvasser in to the authorities.

Las Vegas: The basic story:

"Members of a new task force designed to prevent voter fraud raided the Las Vegas office of an organization that works with low-income people on everything from voting to neighborhood improvements.

State investigators, armed with a search warrant, sought evidence of voter fraud at the office of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN, a Nevada Secretary of State's office spokesman said today.

"This is part of an ongoing investigation by the multijurisdictional task force that we announced this past July," Secretary of State Ross Miller said in a statement. "We said then that we would work aggressively to protect the process. We're going to do everything possible to ensure that Nevada's voter rolls are protected and to ensure that only those who are eligible can cast a ballot."

There are allegations that some registration applications were completed with false information, while other applications attempted to register the same person multiple times, Miller said. (...)

ACORN had received a subpoena dated Sept. 19 requesting information on 15 employees, all of whose names had been included in packages previously submitted to election officials, [ACORN's interim chief organizer Bertha] Lewis said. ACORN provided its personnel records on the 15 employees on Sept. 29, she said.

"For the past 10 months, any time ACORN has identified a potentially fraudulent application, we turn that application in to election officials separately and offer to provide election officials with the information they would need to pursue an investigation or prosecution of the individual," Lewis said. "Election officials routinely ignored this information and failed to act.""


"Joe Camp, who oversaw the voter drive's quality-control operation, said that whenever a batch of registrations didn't seem kosher based on phone checks, they were submitted to the Clark County Election Department with a "Problematic Card Cover Sheet." ACORN on Wednesday supplied examples of such submissions going back to April.

By law, ACORN could not simply not turn in a suspect registration, even if it was in the name of Mickey Mouse. It is a felony to discard or destroy voter registration forms, which are tracked with individual serial numbers.

Camp said 46 packets of especially suspicious forms, totaling about 700, were submitted, and more than 50 canvassers were fired. Henderson, the regional ACORN director, said the group wished legal action would have been taken against those people."

You can read the affadavit submitted in support of Nevada's search warrant on ACORN here (pdf; the 'probable cause' section begins on p. 11). A couple of things struck me about it. The first is that it is largely based on documents ACORN gave to Nevada's investigator, and on his subsequent interviews with some of the ACORN ex-employees whose names he got from those documents. The documents ACORN provided came from its quality control program, which had identified problems with registrations submitted by these employees. There's nothing in the affadavit about ACORN failing to cooperate; in fact, ACORN offered to turn over information on the ex-employees who had submitted fraudulent registrations for further investigation. There's also nothing that explains why a warrant was needed.

Moreover, the various ex-employees of ACORN were all terminated when ACORN discovered that they had been submitting fraudulent registrations. And none of them says anything to suggest that ACORN encouraged this in any way. Instead, you get statements like this (pp. 14-15):

"JONES also stated that it was very hot outside when she was trying to get people to complete a form. JONES stated that many people she approached would not complete a form. JONES stated that as a result, she began asking people who had completed forms if they would complete forms for other people."


"ANDERSON described that some of the canvassers hired by ACORN were "lazy crack-heads" who were not interested in working and just wanted the money."

(Bear in mind that these are interviews with people who were fired by ACORN, and thus have no obvious motive to cover for the organization.)

There's nothing in the affadavit that suggests complicity on ACORN's part, at all.

New Mexico: TPMMuckraker has this one:

"Last week, as we noted at the time, the New Mexico GOP had publicly claimed that 28 people voted fraudulently in the Democratic primary, held in June, for a local race.

Then this morning, the RNC sent out a press release announcing a 3pm conference call with reporters "on the recent developments in New Mexico regarding ACORN."

But at 11am, ACORN -- the community organizing group that Republicans have been trying lately to turn into a voter fraud boogeyman -- held a conference call of its own, asserting that local election officials had confirmed that the 28 people in question, mostly low-income Latinos, were valid voters."


As I said, I think that it would be a good idea for ACORN to go over its quality control. But in the cases I tried to dig deeper in, there doesn't seem to be anything to indicate a systematic effort to fraudulently register people, as opposed to a bunch of canvassers getting lazy. I think the media ought to be much, much clearer about this.

Hilzoy 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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I have a friend in NYC who used to work for ACORN. He said it's basically a union of poor people who do things like lobby to get new boilers in public housing complexes.

Posted by: Haik Bedrosian on October 21, 2008 at 12:09 PM | PERMALINK

Is the problem paying people to register others to vote, or paying people by the number of registrees they get? It seems like it's the latter that encourages fraud. You wouldn't encounter this if people were paid by the hour, as there'd be no incentive to make up fake registrations (or, at least, considerably less incentive).

Posted by: John on October 21, 2008 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

I thought that with "Operation Chaos", and all the Limbaugh fans registering as Democrats, at least a few of them would have been recruited by Spectre...I mean ACORN to go and vote as Daffy Duck. The fact that none of the Chaos operatives have come forward leads me to conclude there is less than nothing there.

Posted by: flounder on October 21, 2008 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

Doesn't it seem fairly obvious that this attack on ACORN is also part of the community organizer is an unimportant job with no responsibilities attack that Gov. Palin began in her acceptance speech. It continues with ACORN (as everytime the initials are explained we get community organzing).

Posted by: on October 21, 2008 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

Doesn't it seem fairly obvious that this attack on ACORN is also part of the community organizer is an unimportant job with no responsibilities attack that Gov. Palin began in her acceptance speech. It continues with ACORN (as everytime the initials are explained we get community organzing).

Posted by: barbed on October 21, 2008 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

John: best I can tell, ACORN does not pay employees by the number of registrations. They do, however, tell people to "shoot for" 20 a day, and if they fall below ten or so, they get some sort of retraining.

You don't want to provide an incentive for fraud. On the other hand, if you pay no attention whatsoever to how many registrations people turn in, there's no reason for them not to just clock in every day and do nothing. I don't really see how it's possible to get around this completely.

Posted by: hilzoy on October 21, 2008 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

Hilzoy - that makes sense. Forget my comment, then.

Posted by: John on October 21, 2008 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

Why should ACORN not pay people to register voters? In my state of Arizona, it is absolutely standard to pay people to collect signatures for voter initiatives. The standard scenario is something like this: Particularly unattractive industry (dog tracks, or payday lenders) sponsors initiative behind sneaky label, and pays scum-of-the-earth signature collectors (I've been cursed out for refusing to sign) to stand on corners, outside public library, etc. to collect. How many inauthentic signatures do you think get turned in? Until we put these bozos out of business, it's kind of silly to attack ACORN's combination of civic-mindedness and a little help for folks who need a job.

Posted by: jhill on October 21, 2008 at 12:30 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for the well-written article, Hilzoy.

Perhaps you would consider writing an equally well-researched article about actual documented vote fraud by Republican operatives in the pay of the McCain campaign.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on October 21, 2008 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

Problems with canvassers are not unique to ACORN.

When the GOP recalled Grey Davis in California in 2003 only 1,363,411 signatures out of 1,660,245 collected were valid voters. Over 18% were faked by the paid signature gatherers or entered fraudulently or in error by the people signing.

And yes, both Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck appeared multiple times. I'm sure Tony Romo did not appear but I'm also sure Doug Flutie, the Chargers QB in 2003 probably did.

Posted by: The Other Ed on October 21, 2008 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

Interestingly, there is no mention of the RNC and McCain Campaign's voter registration operation conducted by Nathan Sproul i.e. Lincoln Strategy.

google: Nathan Sproul Lincoln Strategy RNC McCain

Posted by: nuQlerOstrich on October 21, 2008 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

@ barbed:

What seems "pretty obvious" is that this is the Republican's message: "The blacks*--after having ruined our country by taking out mortgages that they could not afford--are plotting to still the election so that they can steal tax money from hard-working white Real Americans."

(* Maybe the Mexicans, too, but especially the blacks.)

Posted by: Jabari on October 21, 2008 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

A friend of mine who works for a state party managing application-gatherers thinks ACORN is sloppy, because they tell people (in his words) "Get x number of applications a day or you're fired!" which is kind of a recipe for fraud.

Posted by: anon on October 21, 2008 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

Here's an LA Times article from 2003 on paid signature canvassers: http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jul/07/local/me-recall7

Posted by: The Other Ed on October 21, 2008 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

I think the faux outrage about ACORN is a purposeful plan to delegitimize the outcome of the election and lay the groundwork for Republican stonewalling in the future.

McCain's internals are probably telling him he's lost without a significant change, so he's setting himself up to be the opposition leader in the Senate and make Obama's first term as unproductive as possible and increase GOP chances in 2012.

That's considerably harder to do in the face of a landslide unless you have a way of calling the winner a cheater. Since Obama, unlike Bush, is not legitimately cheating, McCain had to make something up.

Bonus Republican points for McCain because his bogeyman is focused on progress and empowerment for poor people and minorities.

McCain's hyperbolic about ACORN has me convinced Obama has this won, but it also reminds me that winning the election is only step one, and governing with the petulant, childish, sore loser and his cronies in the Senate is going to be an uphill battle.

Posted by: doubtful on October 21, 2008 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

I think the GOP's attack on ACORN serves two purposes - it allows them to insert intimidating 'poll watchers' in minority districts, slowing up the voting process and causing many voters to leave before votings, and it allows their diehards to believe that an Obama administration is illegitimate.

Rush Limbaugh will be thrilled to haul out his 'America Held Hostage' tag-line. I'm expecting with some dread a rebirth of the hate-fueled 'patriot' militias and potentially more Tim McVeighs during Obama's first term.

Posted by: Arachnae on October 21, 2008 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with doubtful's take on things and would add one more. I'd say the McCain/Rove is to try to dominate this story so that when voter suppression and vote fraud by the Repubs and Diebold happen on election day the media will retreat to "Well, both sides do it."

Posted by: tomeck on October 21, 2008 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

What's the fuss even if they somehow manage to vote, as if 12 fraudulent votes have never been cast in the entirety of America between both parties? Besides, if someone with the sophistication of a bad cartoon strip can be president, surely Mickey Mouse can vote.

Posted by: JohnH on October 21, 2008 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

And another detail: ACORN says that it calls each registered voter to verify that he or she did, in fact, register to vote before it submits the forms to the registrar or county clerk. According to someone in the organization whom I heard speak last Saturday, they make at least three attempts to call the would-be voter by phone.

I have no reason to doubt that, since how else would it be able to divide the forms into three categories (verified, incomplete and suspect)? So why there may be a risk in using paid signature gatherers, ACORN appears to have made pretty diligent quality control efforts.

Posted by: Henry on October 21, 2008 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

Wait a minute! Seven people, all with the same name, at the same address. Does their father manufacture an award winning grill perchance?

Posted by: royalblue_tom on October 21, 2008 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

It's the Dolchstoss legend in infancy--McCain was on the verge of victory until ACORN stole it from it. The fraud at the polls totally invalidates the Democratic victory and is grounds for secession.

If only they WOULD leave.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on October 21, 2008 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

This ACORN attack is so blatantly transparent and absurd, I find myself astonished, on a daily basis, that its given any cred whatsoever.

Imagine this scenario: The registration cards that the GOP is basing their attacks on, instead of being flagged and handed over, are summarily dumped in the garbage because they are obviously fraudulent. The GOP now screams "They are throwing out voter registration cards! They are disenfranchising voters! How many of those thrown our were marked 'Republican'?!?"

Asshats, the lot of them.

Posted by: Simp on October 21, 2008 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

Then there's this: "The owner of a firm that the California Republican Party hired to register tens of thousands of voters this year was arrested in Ontario over the weekend on suspicion of voter registration fraud."

Basically, he registered himself at parent's house to do business in California. Changed people's reg from Dem to Rep.


Posted by: Tilli (Mojave Desert) on October 21, 2008 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

NPR interview with an Acorn rep indicated they used to pay per card (years ago), but changed to pay per hour to reduce the number of fraudulent cards; they call every registrant three times to verify before putting them in the verified list; any they can't contact are labeled unverified; any suspicious cards are labeled such. Employees who turn in fraudulent cards are fired. What other QC measures could be implemented?

Posted by: sdc on October 21, 2008 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

the second is compliance with the law.

I was explaining this to my kids the other day. The raids on ACORN are akin to being pulled over and cited for running a green light.

Posted by: Roddy McCorley on October 21, 2008 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

To be completely fair, a more sophisticated version of the right-wing anti-ACORN argument is that by inflating the voter rolls with non-existent voters, it allows fraudulent ballots to be cast after hours by the poll workers themselves. The incentives for this type of vote fraud are somewhat better than for paying individuals to vote more than once, but not much. And, of course, if there were even a shred of evidence of this actually going on in any Democratic precinct, the Bush Department of Injustice would have ferreted it out and made hay with it.

No, if you wanted to fix an election, you're far better off owning a voting machine company and patching the win.

Posted by: dob on October 21, 2008 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

Hmm, rethinking the idea of paying people to gather voter registrations because it encourages fraud. That sounds promising; let's consider all the other important political and economic activities where we should rethink the idea of paying people to reduce the incentive for fraud. I'm sure volunter mortgage brokers, investment bankers, doctors, lawyers and reporters would have a salutary effect on the way our country works.

Posted by: paul on October 21, 2008 at 2:07 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for this, Hilzoy! It's simply the most complete and level-headed roundup I've seen about the realities (or lack thereof) underlying the Acorn "controversy."

Posted by: Jim Strain on October 21, 2008 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

Unless its right around election time, I've discovered that somebody asking "are you registered to vote?" is usually the lead-in to "you should listen to me for 5 minutes and then sign my petition."

Unless I see a whole stack of registration form under the person's arm, my answer is "No."

Posted by: Randy on October 21, 2008 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

Hilzoy wrote, "I think that it would be a good idea for ACORN to go over its quality control."

Great post, Hilzoy. Very informative.

I do want to point out that, as someone who used to own a business that hired low-skill, hourly workers, there's only so much you can do. The nature of the business is that such workers will have a spotty work history, and undoubtedly, there will be high turnover and a limited amount of fudging (which, incidentally, can also be found among highly-skilled/highly-educated workers).

I believe that I read that the number of problematic registrations turned in amounted to less than 2 percent of the total. As far as I'm concerned, ACORN has a damn good record and should keep doing exactly what it's doing. In fact, I wouldn't necessarily want additional quality control procedures when, as part of their mission, ACORN is deliberately making an effort to create decent paying jobs for people who live on the margins.

1 or 2 percent of bogus registrations that could not possibly result in voter fraud is a small price to pay for millions of valid new registations and thousands of jobs for many who otherwise have difficulty finding work.

I think I'll go online and make a contribution to them today.

Thanks again!

Posted by: CJ on October 21, 2008 at 3:45 PM | PERMALINK

Great post as usual, hilzoy.

Sadly, from the recent antics of certain shameless Republican water carriers in these threads, it's clear that the media is doing nothing with this lousy coverage but supplying a demand for distorted, dishonest and demented disinformation that feeds right-wing talking points.

Posted by: Gregory on October 21, 2008 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

I think the real problem with this detailed analysis is that the whole thing is a smokescreen for GOP vote suppression. "Voter Fraud" has been the rallying cry of the Right to enable everything from unconstitutionally restrictive ID laws to the US Attorney purge.

It's basically a bullshit attack, like "kerning" and various others. The perpetrators don't care whether it's true or not, and their supporters won't accept any evidence that it's not. (As Frankfurt outlines in "On Bullshit," refuting bullshit by argument is essentially impossible, because it takes a lot of work to definitively refute it, but no work at all to just move on to another line of bullshit in response.)

So I appreciate the detailed analysis, but it's more important to focus on the real danger that they're using this to cover for. Thankfully, the Obama campaign seems to understand this -- he rightly ignored the cries of those who said he needs to "push back harder" on ACORN, and instead aimed straight at the illegal coordination with the politicized DOJ and the leaks about "investigations" designed to sway the election.

Posted by: Redshift on October 21, 2008 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK

The way ACORN does it is pretty much how all large scale voter registration drives work. I remember, in the first campaign I worked in, being amazed that one of our smartest, most detail oriented leaders would spend every morning going over every card turned in by the small crew of people he had out doing registrations. The law required the cards to be turned in within something like 48 hours. He checked every one, pulled any doubtful ones, and fired any registrar who seemed to be turning in fraudulent cards.

That was on behalf of the Democratic Party -- 20 years ago. ACORN had no part of it. This is just how the registration rolls get kept up.

Posted by: janinsanfran on October 22, 2008 at 12:11 AM | PERMALINK

And just to be clear, the workers deliberately turning in fraudulent registrations are being lazy and/or short-sighted.

If they are working hard and just can't get enough legitimate registrations, their choices are:
- Turn in fewer than the target number of forms, get counseled, get retrained, eventually get fired if they can't improve.
- Fake up enough registrations to meet the target, get caught, get fired immediately, get reported to election officials for possible prosecution.

Posted by: tanstaafl on October 22, 2008 at 7:10 AM | PERMALINK



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