The Scandal That Never Was: ACORN, Right-Wing Media, & Electoral "Fraud"
The massive attention surrounding ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is as indicative of Republican and media racism as it is their class prejudice. Much of this attention centers on John McCain's attacks on the organization, which were voiced during the third Presidential debate. McCain warned viewers that ACORN, which has endorsed Obama, is "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history," and "may be destroying the fabric of democracy." Those are pretty vigilant claims for someone with no evidence.
I can't say I'm surprised that the Republicans have taken to demonizing ACORN. I have been a long supporter of the group in light of their strong support for the living wage movement. Considering that ACORN is a progressive-left, Obama affiliated organization, it was only a matter of time before it became a major focus of conservative hate. ACORN has recently made the news, due to reports that it employed a number of canvassers who registered voters, while using fabricated information and fake names such as "Micky Mouse" or "Brad Pitt," amongst others.
In danger of losing its eight year hold on the Presidency, the Republican Party has become increasingly desperate in its attacks on poor and minority groups, who have registered in increasingly large numbers this election year. The attacks on ACORN must be understood within the context of this enfranchisement of dispossessed groups. John Danforth, a Republican McCain ally and former senator, has publicly pressured Obama about his "special responsibility to rein in ACORN," while VP candidate Sarah Palin decries "the Left-wing activist group ACORN [that] is now under investigation for voter registration fraud in a number of battleground states. We can't allow leftist groups like ACORN to steal this election." Palin's remarks are extremely revealing in light of the increased registration of the poor. Empowerment of poor minority voters certainly does constitute a threat to the Republican's class war against the masses of Americans. It's easy to see why Palin, McCain, and company see ACORN's efforts as theft – considering that the country's "legitimate" voting pool is expected to be restricted to the affluent, disproportionately white minorities who benefit from the Republican Party's class war (any others who vote must be duped into supporting this class war against themselves).
Republican attacks on ACORN have been followed by vigilant action. The FBI is now investigating ACORN and has raided its offices to try and find information of alleged fraud. Republicans in Ohio have appealed to the Supreme Court (unsuccessfully) to grant them the power to comb through registered voter rolls, with the possibility of purging voters (remember Florida in 2000?) whose information that includes mismatches between information provided by the registrants and information held by Ohio's 88 counties. Although such mismatches are often either arbitrary or the result of faulty record keeping by the state, this hasn't stopped Republicans from seeking power to throw registered voters off the rolls.
Media discussions of ACORN have predictably followed the talking points issued by Republican Party leaders to Fox News and right-wing radio, and the rhetoric of the McCain-Palin team. Attention has been massive, with over sixty stories alone on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC emphasizing the ACORN controversy in the two days following the third Presidential debate. The uniformity of conservative attacks on ACORN has been rather impressive, although hardly intellectual or informative. The editors at the Washington Times lambasted ACORN for being "either co-opted by an outside group bent on committing massive voter fraud to rig this election," or as "itself intent on" committing fraud. "Mr. Obama, whose campaign paid ACORN $800,000 to register voters during the primary, should be saddled with the burden of proof and take the lead in addressing the allegations." Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer draws attention to "Barack Obama's long-standing relationship with the left-wing vote-fraud specialist ACORN" (Obama had worked with the group in a voter registration drive when he was a Chicago community organizer, and his campaign reportedly provided the group with money for a "get-out-the-vote" campaign). Radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Dennis Prager, and Michael Medved and Fox News commentators such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity have relentlessly emphasized the ACORN issue in their programs.
Presumably, the right-wing foot soldiers in the media, who couldn't have cared less what ACORN was doing months ago let alone describe what the acronym stood for, have now become independent experts on the organization's negligence and duplicity in destroying democracy. There's only one problem with this narrative – none of it's true.
When interviewed on Fox News' Hannity and Colmes, Court TV news anchor Jami Floyd claimed that "John McCain would support ACORN. Wouldn't anybody support an effort to get more voters to the polls? That's what America is about. That's what we fought our revolution for. Representation, right? That's what we're about." Floyd fundamentally misunderstands what's at stake in this election. The right-wing hate machine hasn't gone after ACORN because of a voting scandal (which never existed) but because of the threat poor voters pose to business dominance of government. While the faith of new voters in Obama is probably misplaced (he has not promised to promote a new social welfare state the likes of the New Deal or Great Society), support for Obama nonetheless constitutes a major threat to Republican dominance of government. It is this threat of bringing millions of poor into the political process (ACORN registered 1.3 million poor and minority voters for the 2008 election) that is really driving recent attacks.
If readers are still unconvinced, consider the following: No evidence was ever presented that ACORN leaders intended to register voters using false information. Establishing such intent is the first requisite for demonstrating voter fraud. As the New York Times reports, the charges against ACORN are "wildly overblown" and intended, rather, to "hobble ACORN's [registration] efforts." While the group admits that some canvassers did hand in false names, those accounted for less than 1 percent of the total gathered. ACORN thoroughly reviews the voter information it gathers, flagging any cases that seem suspicious. ACORN has admitted to firing any canvassers who were found to submit faulty voter information. ACORN representatives also call those who have registered with them, in order to verify the information they've collected. If any of the cases turn up questionable information, ACORN attaches a warning card to that case as it submits the forms to the states within which it operates.
The real problem, often times, appears to have been with the states and Republican partisans themselves, rather than with ACORN. Most of the faulty forms that have fed attention to the "scandal" were only condemned by political leaders because ACORN warned them about the individual cases, not due to the investigative diligence of Republican lawmakers or right-wing media pundits. One wouldn't know this from reading media accounts. Neoconservatives such as Charles Krauthammer condemn ACORN itself for "voter registration fraud" in states like Nevada. What Krauthammer conveniently neglects to mention is that Nevada Secretary of State Bob Walsh's orders to raid ACORN's Las Vegas office took place only after the state ignored ACORN's pleas that it investigate possibly fraudulent voter registrations. The account of the fiasco below, provided by ACORN representative Bertha Lewis, is worth reading. In an October press release, Lewis explained that:
"Over the past year, ACORN has worked hard to help over 80,000 people in Clark County [Nevada] register to vote. As part of our nonpartisan voter registration program, we have reviewed all the applications submitted by our canvassers. When we have identified suspicious applications, we have separated them out and flagged them for election officials. We have zero tolerance for fraudulent registrations. We immediately dismiss employees we suspect of submitting fraudulent registrations. For the past 10 months, any time ACORN has identified a potentially fraudulent application, we turn that application into election officials separately and offer to provide election officials with the information they would need to pursue an investigation or prosecution of the individual. Election officials routinely ignored this information and failed to act."
The Republican Party and right-wing media's attack on ACORN is motivated primarily by their fear of electoral defeat, and their contempt for poor, minority voters who will help usher in that defeat. Sadly, the Obama campaign failed to condemn this racist hate movement by distancing itself from ACORN in the third debate. It should be applauding the group for its important and necessary work in registering disenfranchised voters. At a time when Obama leads in the polls by 6.5-7% over McCain, he should feel empowered to take on racism and class biased directed at those who're simply exercising their basic, democratic right to vote. This may be asking too much, sadly, from Democratic leaders who would rather pander to the affluent than stand up for the disadvantaged.
Anthony DiMaggio teaches Developing World Politics and American Government at Illinois State University. His book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror" will be released in paperback this December. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org