Republicans Attack Acorn's Voter Registrations

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Republicans are ratcheting up their attacks against voter registration drives run by Acorn, a nonprofit group that represents low-income and minority voters. Republicans say it's a "threat to public safety," while the group says it's being unfairly attacked.


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Republicans are taking aim at a nonprofit voter registration group that they say is opening the way for voter fraud. But the group, called Acorn, says Republicans are trying to suppress the minority vote. NPR's Pam Fessler has the story.

PAM FESSLER: The Republican National Committee's general counsel, Sean Cairncross, doesn't mince words. Here he is on a conference call with reporters talking about Acorn, a group that advocates for low-income families on housing and economic issues and also registers them to vote.

Mr. SEAN CAIRNCROSS (General Counsel, Republican National Committee): It is at best a quasi-criminal, Democrat-affiliated organization that willfully and openly breaks the law, is a clear and present danger to the integrity of the election process, and constitutes a threat to public safety.

FESSLER: And that's the best he has to say. Cairncross offers as evidence the fact that a few Acorn workers have been found guilty of forging voter registration forms, that some have felony records, and that election officials repeatedly find problems with registrations submitted by the group. Oh, and then there's this.

Mr. CAIRNCROSS: As malignant as Acorn was in 2004 and in 2006, the close ties between Acorn and Senator Obama are very disturbing.

FESSLER: He notes that the Democratic presidential nominee did legal work for Acorn in the 1990s, although there's no evidence the group's registration drives are linked with the Obama campaign. Michael Slater runs Project Vote, a nonprofit that is linked to Acorn and co-manages the voter registration drive, one of the largest in the country. Slater thinks Republicans are using unsubstantiated claims to smear Obama and to raise fears about fraud to justify restrictions on voters such as requiring ID at the polls.

Mr. MICHAEL SLATER (Deputy Director, Project Vote): It's very unfortunate that people would misconstrue our work and treat what is essentially a hiring and employment issue and turn it into an election or political issue.

FESSLER: As Slater sees it, Project Vote and Acorn are the victims of a few bad workers among the hundreds they hire at eight dollars an hour to sign up new voters. In fact, he says, it's his group that usually flags problem registrations for election officials and works with them on possible prosecutions.

Mr. SLATER: So, far from being reckless or inspiring voter registration fraud, we are actually out there trying to make sure that our work is as professional, accurate, and reliable as possible. We work with election officials to deliver that.

Ms. ARKEESHA POE(ph) (Acorn Organizer, Columbus, Ohio): Hi, everybody.

Unidentified Woman: Hi.

Ms. POE: How you all doing today?

Unidentified Man: Pretty good.

Ms. POE: Doing good. Getting better?

FESSLER: Indeed, at an Acorn office in Columbus, Ohio, this month, organizer Arkeesha Poe reminds canvassers how important it is that voter registration forms be accurate and complete.

Ms. POE: The last time we was in, we had no incomplete cards for the crew.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. POE: And we want to keep it that way. Because every card that's incomplete, you know, that's one person who might not be able to cast a vote and be counted for.

FESSLER: And local election officials say Acorn has been trying to clean up its act. The problem registrations are a small percentage of the 1.2 million forms the group has turned in this year. That's not to say there aren't problems. Up in Cleveland in Cuyahoga County, election officials are investigating a number of questionable Acorn registrations. Jane Platten is Cuyahoga's election director.

Ms. JANE PLATTEN (Elections Director, Cuyahoga County): Anywhere from incomplete cards - they didn't have a street address or the last four digits of their Social Security number - to multiple cards coming in for a person of the same name, but maybe had a different address on each card, or had a different birth date on the cards.

FESSLER: She says one man was registered 73 times. Platten agrees with the RNC that this means a lot of extra work for election officials as they try to separate the good registrations from the bad. She also thinks it means more opportunity for ineligible voters to slip through the cracks.

Ms. PLATTEN: We really have to make sure our poll workers are diligent so that those people who are sending in fraudulent cards don't vote.

FESSLER: That hasn't been much of a problem in the past. But with such a close and contentious election, even allegations of voter fraud and intimidation are increasingly part of the debate. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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