Apart from the McClatchy News outlet, the mainstream media coverage of the U.S. attorney scandal has missed the important backstory: the protracted struggle over voting rights. At the center of the storm is a David versus Goliath battle. On the one side is the Bush Administration and the Republican Party apparatus. On the other side is ACORN, a little-known, national, grassroots, anti-poverty organization. ACORN has come under fire from the White House after registering more than 1.6 million voters during the last two national elections--mostly, poor and minority voters who tend to vote Democratic, and, mostly, in swing states. Republicans, for their part, have gone after ACORN hard with a public smear campaign, trumped-up lawsuits in Florida, New Mexico and Ohio, and pressure on law enforcement officials to file criminal charges against the group. Just days before the 2006 election, a U.S. attorney in Kansas City brought a voter-fraud indictment against four people registering voters for ACORN, spurring a congressional investigation led by Republican Senator Charles Grassley.
None of this would have become known but for the U.S. attorney scandal. In New Mexico, U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, was fired after failing to prosecute a voter-fraud case against ACORN, which had been registering large numbers of voters in New Mexico's low-income and, largely, minority neighborhoods in 2004. Prominent New Mexico Republicans, including Senator Pete Domenici, had, repeatedly, complained to Karl Rove about Iglesias's failure to bring voter-fraud indictments. After Iglesias said he couldn't prove a case against ACORN, his days were numbered. ("He's gone," Rove reportedly told Allen Weh, the chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, who twice asked for Iglesias to be fired.)
After the 2000 election, the electorate was evenly divided, and Republicans had to struggle to gain an edge. One way was to stifle voter registration by minorities and the poor, by going after supposed voter fraud. John Ashcroft was a natural to hunt down voter fraud. In 2000, he had lost a close senate race to a dead man, and Republicans had charged the Democrats with "trying to steal the election," as Kit Bond put it, through voter-registration tactics. In late 2001, McClatchy News reported that Ashcroft hired three Republican political operatives to work in a secretive new unit in the Civil Rights Division's Voting Rights Section. According to McClatchy, Ashcroft, repeatedly, cited voter fraud--without evidence--as the reason to implement tougher voter-identification measures, and other steps to restrict access to the ballot.
Meanwhile, in 2003, ACORN, looking to put its anti-poverty issues on the national agenda, teamed up with Project Vote, a non-profit organization founded in the early 1980s, and the leading outfit providing technical and legal assistance to groups registering low-income and minority voters. ACORN became a voter registration machine, and soon a Republican target.
As the 2004 election approached, Ashcroft launched a broad initiative to crack down on supposed voter fraud in key battleground states, including Florida, Missouri, Ohio and New Mexico--all states where ACORN was making headway registering voters. (In Florida, voter registration increased 60 percent in Democratic areas between 2000 and 2004, versus only 12 percent in Republican areas.) In all of those states, Republicans filed suits against ACORN for voter fraud, and, in every case, ACORN was exonerated. Nevertheless, conservative outlets continued to smear the group. In October of 2004, conservative news outlets pounced on a story about the organization mishandling voter forms and, according to Rush Limbaugh, "trying to register voters two and three times." Two years later, after the 2006 election, the Wall Street Journal promoted claims that ACORN was under scrutiny for election irregularities with one headline blaring, “A union-backed outfit faces charges of election fraud.” An editorial included an allegation—that ACORN gave cocaine to a worker in exchange for fraudulent registrations—that was a complete fabrication. The Journal editorial sounded the alarm of "voter fraud", referring to the indictments brought just days before the 2006 election against four ACORN workers in Kansas City. In fact, ACORN’s quality-control team caught a handful of its employees submitting questionable cards, in order to make it appear they were doing more work than they really were. ACORN was the victim--not the perpetrator--of any wrongdoing. ACORN fired them, brought their names to the authorities, and provided evidence for the investigation that resulted the indictment of four workers for submitting seven improper cards.
Most journalists covered the fights over voter registration and participation as a kind of "he said, she said" story, suspending judgment on the relative accuracy of groups like ACORN accusing Republicans of voter repression, and Republicans accusing ACORN and Democrat-leaning groups of voter fraud. Perhaps striving for evenhandedness, mainstream media, including public radio, treated the subject as if voter access by minorities and voter fraud were like siblings who complain that the other gets too much attention—Democrats yell and scream about access; Republicans about fraud.
The debate over voter fraud might have remained that way, but for the incident in New Mexico. After Al Gore beat George W. Bush by just three hundred sixty-six votes in 2000, the state became the site of a long battle over voter registration. By the fall of 2004, as the race between Bush and Kerry tightened, ACORN had signed up more than 35,000 voters statewide. But one of the new voters turned out to be a 13-year-old son of a Republican policeman, and so County Sheriff Darren White, a high-profile Republican and a state chair for the Bush campaign, sent a letter to Iglesias, asking him to investigate voter-registration cards, claiming that a number of "suspect" forms had been submitted to the county clerk's office in Bernalillo. A suit filed by state Republicans was eventually rebuffed, and ACORN maintained that the voter-fraud story was false.
Nevertheless, GOP leaders demanded a criminal investigation. On the day that the GOP lost its court case, Iglesias announced at a press conference that he would look into the matter, declaring, "It appears that mischief is afoot, and questions are lurking in the shadows." To investigate complaints, Iglesias set up a voter-fraud task force, which included members of the Department of Justice, the FBI, the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, and the New Mexico secretary of state's office. But, by January 2005, Iglesias concluded that there wasn't enough evidence to bring a fraud case against ACORN. By early December 2005, he had been dismissed.
In October of 2006, a few days before the midterm elections, Senator Charles Grassley demanded boxes of documents from ACORN for his congressional investigation on voter fraud. His allegations relied, in part, on evidence from a mysterious organization called the American Center for Voting Rights (ACVR), which had been set up by St. Louis lawyer Mark "Thor" Hearne, the national counsel to Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. ACVR listed a barrage of voter-fraud allegations against ACORN, despite the fact that all investigative agencies and courts had exonerated the group. Curiously, ACVR has now disappeared, its web domain name terminated and its reports vanished, although they have been retrieved by the Brennan Center at NYU Law School. Hearn has removed his affiliation with the group from his resume. (Ironically, ACORN, recently, took control of ACVR’s internet domain.)
Because of the attorneygate scandal, and the attacks against ACORN, the New York Times began to investigate the Republican allegations of voter fraud and found that it was baseless.
The U.S. attorney scandal should make it harder for the Bush administration to continue to level baseless charges of voter fraud in an effort to challenge the registration of poor and minority voters. But there are few signs that they are planning to relent. Since 2003, according to the Boston Globe, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has hired eleven lawyers from the conservative Federalist society, including two people from the Bush-Cheney campaigns.
Although there's no evidence that the organization's get-out-the-vote operations involved fraud, Republican voter-suppression campaigns have, and will continue to, make life more difficult for ACORN organizers and leaders, who have to spend time and money beating back often-spurious accusations, instead of registering more voters. The real victims are the poor, whose electoral voice remains mute. To be sure, ACORN hasn't been stopped in its tracks. Organizers, like Matt Henderson from New Mexico, told me that, "We will never be intimidated by baseless legal attacks." ACORN plans to run "issue campaigns" focused on increasing voter turnout through ballot initiatives, such as the minimum wage and “family-leave” initiatives, which appear to have brought people to the polls in Missouri and Montana last year.
For various reasons, including the difficulty of comprehending how ACORN works, and that ACORN’s focus is on reducing poverty, the mainstream press will continue to miss the story of ACORN’s voter-registration endeavors. Whether Republicans successfully intimidate voter- registration campaigns, may well depend on whether the mainstream press catches on to the truth about voter fraud, the WMD of domestic policy.
This is a shorter and different version of an article appearing in the upcoming summer issue of Shelterforce.