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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Republicans have been making allegations of voter-registration fraud against a group called ACORN. It's a grassroots organization that's registered more than a million new voters in areas that vote Democratic. The GOP and other conservatives have campaigned against ACORN before, but there's a lot more to the ACORN story and the politics that surround it, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Just so nobody misses the point, ACORN stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Its top job isn't CEO, it's chief organizer. The interim chief organizer is Bertha Lewis.

Ms. BERTHA LEWIS (Interim Chief Organizer, ACORN): We're like a community union. Our folks are low and moderate income. And we've been doing the fight on bread-and-butter issues for 38 years.

OVERBY: Bread-and-butter issues such as jobs and education. Here's an ACORN organizer in 1998.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Unidentified ACORN Organizer: Let the county of Los Angeles take the lead in creating real jobs with a living wage for people, with benefits, with protection.

OVERBY: And another ACORN leader in Philadelphia in 1996, opposing a state scheme to finance sports arenas.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. BRUCE DORPALEN (National Director of Housing Counseling, ACORN Housing): We have huge needs around education, around housing, around jobs programs, around social services. And to devote that kind of money to sports stadiums is just wrong.

OVERBY: Then there was this rally in 2006 in Miami.

(Soundbite of Republican rally, 2006)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): What makes America special is what's in this room tonight. That's what makes America special.

(Soundbite of applause)

OVERBY: That, of course, was Senator John McCain. He was allied with ACORN and other groups in favor of a big immigration bill. Now his campaign says ACORN is flooding America's polling places with illegal voters, and they play up Barack Obama's ties to ACORN. Yesterday, Obama responded.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): My relationship to ACORN is pretty straightforward.

OVERBY: Thirteen years ago, he said, he was ACORN's lawyer in a lawsuit.

Senator OBAMA: And my partner in that representation was the U.S. Justice Department in having Illinois implement what was called the motor voter law to make sure the people could go to DMVs and driver's license facilities to get registered. It wasn't being implemented.

OVERBY: There are a couple other connections, too. In 1992, Obama ran a voter-registration project in Chicago called Project Vote. Some years later, the National Project Vote affiliated with ACORN. And earlier this year, Obama's campaign indirectly paid ACORN more than $800,000 for campaign work in the primaries. One more thing: ACORN's political action committee has endorsed Obama. But actually, conservatives have been after ACORN for years.

Mr. TIM MILLER (Communications Director, Employment Policies Institute): It is an organization that has a very outsized role in the democratic process.

OVERBY: That's Tim Miller of the business-backed Employment Policies Institute. EPI produced a report called "Rotten Acorn: America's Bad Seed." Miller points to the ouster of ACORN's founder earlier this year. It turned out his brother, who was ACORN's comptroller, had embezzled nearly a million dollars.

Mr. MILLER: When you think about a truly transparent organization, there would never be any way that somebody could embezzle such a large amount.

OVERBY: Then there are ACORN's dozens of subsidiaries. Some get federal funds, some get money from charity, such as the liberal Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the not-so-liberal Bank of America Charitable Foundation. Tim Miller says ACORN moves money around among those subsidiaries.

Mr. MILLER: It essentially gives them a cloak that prevents people from seeing really how they're spending money that comes, in some cases, from the taxpayers, and other cases comes from members of their organization that pay dues.

OVERBY: But right now, voter fraud is the GOP's top campaign message. The Republican National Committee produced this Web ad.

(Soundbite of RNC web ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Nationwide voter fraud. Barack Obama: bad judgment, blind ambition. Too risky for America.

OVERBY: Again, ACORN's Bertha Lewis.

Ms. LEWIS: This election, this linking us to Obama in order to try to damage him, that's a great opportunity.

OVERBY: She says ACORN's profile has never been this high. She says that's good. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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