Monday, October 13, 2008

The ACORN hearing

Christopher Barkley walks to the microphone, wearing a Domino's Pizza uniform and a doo-rag. He's sworn in, and tells the board of elections why he registered to vote 12 times.

"I'd be sitting down in Public Square, reading my book," says Barkley, who was homeless this summer. "People asked me, 'Can you sign these papers?' I said, 'No, I'm already registered.'" They asked him to sign anyway: "I'm trying to hold onto a job," they said. Being a "kind-hearted person," Barkley says, he signed.

Freddie Johnson leaves his black Indians cap on his chair and goes to the mike. He's 19, tiny in a huge sweatshirt. He sells cell phones from a kiosk in Tower City. When he'd wait for the bus in Public Square after work this summer, he says, ACORN workers would approach him. When he said he was registered, they'd "come up with a sob story" and say "it's cool to sign again, because I need a signature, because they get paid by signature." He filled out 48 cards with the same address. Sometimes the workers gave him a cigarette or a dollar.

Luren Dickinson of Shaker Heights, a bespecatcled guy in a suit, testifies he keeps getting board of elections mailings at his house, sent to people who don't live at his address. They're using his house number for false registrations. One guy, Darnell Nash, registered at Dickinson's address and had his registration cancelled when Dickinson complained. But then, Nash came into the elections office, registered again at Dickinson's address, and cast an early ballot. The board votes to void his new registration and ballot. The sheriff will be looking for Nash soon. {*See update below.}

The board of elections votes to ask the county sheriff and prosecutor to investigate the duplicate registration cases. It's going to be a national story. Fox News is covering the meeting. Republicans, including the McCain campaign, are portraying ACORN as a criminal organization.

Let's hope the national reporters keep the story in perspective.

"It's not voter fraud -- people are not multiply voting," said Jane Platten, Cuyahoga County's elections director. "We have safety nets in place that do not allow a person to vote multiple times." Her staff flagged Barkley and Johnson's names during their weekly searches for duplicate registrations.

This year, the elections staff has found 50 to 60 duplicate names out of 71,000 cards submitted by ACORN. Also, they send a mailing to every newly registered (or registration-changing) voter. Of those 71,000 registrations, 3,550 people couldn't be located. They'll have to vote on provisional ballots, which get scrutinized after Election Day to see if the voter is eligible. That's a 5 percent bad-card rate. I asked Platten how that compares to the rate of bad cards among non-ACORN registrations. She said she'd find out and get back to me.

After the meeting, ACORN staffers passed out a folder full of defenses, but their argument that they have a good quality control system was laughably weak. They said they called Freddie Johnson multiple times to verify his information was accurate. Sure, they called him a lot -- because they had 48 cards from him to verify!

The Republican caricatures of ACORN are unfair -- the group has registered hundreds of thousands to vote, and they sounded alarms about the foreclosure crisis long before it wounded the entire economy. But they've got to figure out how to motivate their low-income workers without accidentally giving them reason to cheat, and they've got to check their cards better for problems. They could learn from groups like the Greater Cleveland Voter Coalition, which kept such a thorough database of who they registered in 2004, they used it to prove the county's voter rolls were flawed.

The real effect of ACORN's mistakes on the voting rolls will probably be small. But if Obama wins Ohio in anything less than a landslide, I'm afraid these stories will lead to lots of right-wing stolen-election conspiracy theories -- reverse images of the left's allegations about 2004. I could also see the Republican Party using ACORN mistakes to justify mass challenges to new voters' eligibility. The deadline for challenges is this week.

(Caption: Christopher Barkley testifies at the board of elections meeting.)

Update, Tue. 10/14:
An ACORN staffer defends the group's system here, saying they don't pay by the signature. Fox News ran this extremely misleading report claiming there are 4,700 "phony" registrations in Greater Cleveland. For a better sense of proportion, see the Plain Dealer report and editorial.

*Update, Thu., 6/4/09: Darnell Nash was indicted on voting fraud charges. See this new post.

(The original version of this post said Nash's case apparently didn't involve ACORN -- but the prosecutor's office now says it did.)


Anonymous said...

So...Any updates to your thoughts that ACORN is another 'right wing consipiracy'? How easy it was for you to blame other sources for the problems of ACORN. Nice to know that the justice system works and that ACORN is being proven to be a criminal organization on scale with the mob.

Erick Trickey said...


I think my reporting and analysis hold up a year later. My post showed ACORN as a sloppy organization with poor quality control and hiring practices -- exactly what got it in trouble in the pimp-and-prostitute sting.

Seems like almost all the recent coverage either demonizes ACORN or defends it -- an example of the press becoming more partisan. Here are two exceptions -- I think they get it right.

Leonard Pitts: ACORN's nutty response

Dana Milbank: the forest, the trees, and ACORN