What explains the Republicans' fixation on ACORN in recent days? From Sen. McCain's campaign manager to GOP luminaries to the McCain campaign's own new web ad, ACORN appears to be target #1 of the GOP campaign against Senator Obama, surpassing even a focus on William Ayers. The claims are that ACORN is engaging in massive voter fraud through its voter registration activities, and -- according to the new web ad -- that the group forced banks to take on risky loans that have led to the country's financial crisis. Though at first glance it may look like this is about tying Senator Obama to a group that has been under investigation for its voter registration activities, the real point appears to be part of a broader Republican strategy to remove likely Democratic voters from the voter rolls and to lay the groundwork to contest the outcome of the presidential election in the event of an extremely close result in a battleground state.
Let's start with the direct Obama connection. The McCain campaign is trying to associate the campaign with ACORN's questionable activities, in the same kind of guilt-by-association claims made about William Ayers and Obama "palling around with terrorists." It is a nice bonus that ACORN has been involved in housing issues as well, as it is a chance to deflect attention from the Bush Administration's handling of economic issues and placing blame on a convenient scapegoat. (Next we will learn that ACORN invented financial derivatives.)
With the polls showing the McCain campaign consistently lagging, it is raising the ACORN issue among others to see if it sticks.
But we should resist the temptation to chalk up this ACORN obsession to just another guilt-by-association campaign tactic. For the last three elections, Republicans have been ramping up cries of voter fraud as a way of undermining the legitimacy of the election results should they not turn out in their favor and providing a reason for strict voting purges that are likely to remove many Democratic voters from the rolls.
We saw the voter fraud call in 2004, when Republicans virtually guaranteed that they would have challenged the presidential election results if John Kerry won and the results turned on the outcome in New Mexico, which Republicans said was rife with voter fraud. (Don't forget that this unsubstantiated concern drove the U.S. attorneys scandal.) We saw it with the activities of the American Center for Voting Rights, a Republican-aligned group that promoted the unsubstantiated claims of impersonation voter fraud in an often-successful effort to enact voter identification laws. We see it now with the reissuance of John Fund's book, Stealing Elections, full of anecdote but virtually no evidence of systematic voter fraud that can lead to a change in the outcome of elections. (The kind of fraud that leads to changes in election outcomes has been with absentee votes, which have mostly been ignored in these efforts.) And just try doing a Google News search for the term "voter fraud." You will see people who believe that foreign money is flooding the Obama campaign, that Obama is not a natural born citizen, and that the election will be stolen through voter fraud.
This is the reason that the ACORN controversy is a godsend to the Republicans. It fits into their meme that the election of Obama would be illegitimate and procured by fraud.
ACORN has been very active in registering voters, especially in big cities and in battleground states. It hires low income workers to do the registration (part of a way of providing additional employment for these workers), and there have been numerous documented cases of ACORN workers turning in fraudulent registration forms. These problems have led to convictions and new investigations -- including a raid earlier this week in Nevada (which, by the way, has a Democratic Secretary of State).
ACORN has claimed that it is a victim of the fraud, not a perpetrator of it. It argues that it can't help it if a small share of its workers are turning in these forms. I find this kind of argument unpersuasive. With these persistent problems, ACORN needs to find a different business model for registering voters, even if it means that fewer voters will be registered and fewer low income people employed in the voter registration business.
But the important point now is that fraudulent registrations put in by ACORN employees are not going to lead to fraud at the polls, and Governor Danforth recently claimed in a conference call with reporters. Why else would ACORN submit phony registration forms if not to game the outcome of the election, he asked. The answer is simply that these employees want to keep their jobs. And it is worse if employees are pressured to meet quotas to turn in a certain number of forms, something ACORN denies it is doing.
So even if Mickey Mouse is registering, he is not showing up on election day to cast ballots, and so far as I am aware, there have been no cases of phony voter registrations leading to the casting of votes in any election that have been on any large scale -- much less affected the outcome of elections. So we should all agree that those who submit fraudulent voter registration forms should be punished criminally, but that such activity is not going to affect the outcome of the presidential election: Obama is running way ahead in the polls, and if he wins in a landslide it is not because Donald Duck has voted thousands of times in key swing states.
But cries of voter fraud allow for harsh purging of voters from the rolls. Because of decentralization of election authority and a lack of administrative competence or will, the rolls are inaccurate in many states. Careless purging--driven by unsubstantiated fears about voter fraud--can lead to many eligible voters being incorrectly removed from the polls. Despite the fact that eligible voters are being removed from the polls, the GOP is pushing for more purging in Ohio, and they found a sympathetic federal judge, citing ACORN's activities, in requiring the Democratic Secretary of State to allow county elections board to purge of many new Ohio voters who do not have an exact match in inaccurate databases.
And if the election comes down to the counting of provisional ballots cast in a state like Colorado, look out. We can expect to see James Baker back on television, this time demanding that the results be changed in McCain's favor because of massive voter fraud. From little ACORNs can come mighty lawsuits.