Friday, October 10, 2008

ACORN investigated in Cleveland

Republicans' allegations about voter fraud by the group ACORN are spreading fast, and Cleveland is going to become ground zero in the controversy next week.

Authorities in Las Vegas raided ACORN's office there on Tuesday. They alleged that ACORN, a community organizing group that registers voters nationwide, was filing false registration cards. In Cleveland, the board of elections is looking into problems with some registrations ACORN collected: see the Plain Dealer's stories from Wednesday and from August.

The New York Post ran this story today about Freddie Johnson, a cell-phone kiosk vendor in downtown Cleveland who filled out 72 identical registration cards in exchange for cigarettes and dollar bills.

I just got two e-mails about ACORN within two minutes. Jim Trakas, Republican challenger to U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, sent out a press release calling for federal funds for ACORN to be cut off and asking why Kucinich hasn't spoken out on the issue. And the John McCain campaign just released a Web-only ad attacking Barack Obama for having allied himself with ACORN, "a group now accused of widespread voter fraud across the country." The ad is a sequel to the Web ad about former Weatherman Bill Ayers -- part of a strategy of painting Obama as radical. Meanwhile, in Columbus yesterday, a federal judge, siding with the Republican Party in its suit against the Secretary of State, cited the Las Vegas raid and Plain Dealer article as examples of why registrations have to be checked.

Before Cleveland becomes infamous again for voting troubles, let's ask a couple of questions.

When I debunked left-wing claims that Republicans stole the 2004 election in Ohio, and wrote my own articles about what really went wrong with Cleveland's elections, I decided any careful, skeptical look at voting controversies has to ask a few key questions:

-How many votes is the problem affecting? Do you have solid numbers, or just scary anecdotes?
-If you say votes are "at risk" because of the problem, how big is the risk?
-What's the cause of the problem? Are there other possible explanations besides the most sinister theory?

Voting problems scare people, for good reason. But these stories also excite partisans, feeding into their worst suspicions: The other side is evil. They will stop at nothing. They can't possibly win an election fairly, so they must cheat.

The allegations against ACORN are serious, and it's obvious they need to be investigated. From what I've read so far, though, they look a tad less ominous when you ask the questions I suggest. Wednesday's PD says elections officials have flagged "about 50 names on suspicious cards" out of 65,000 cards ACORN has submitted in Cuyahoga County. The problem seems to lie with paid canvassers, who are expected to register a certain number of people. Some of them would rather register the same person more than once or make up bum cards than do their jobs right. "Supervisors sometimes fail to prevent different canvassers from attempting to register the same person," the PD story says.

If this could lead to people voting more than once, it's very serious. If it just means the board of elections has to throw out a bunch of cards because its database catches the names as already registered, it's more of a nuisance.

I'll be writing about this again. Johnson and two other people whose names appear on multiple cards have been subpoenaed to appear at the board of elections meeting on Monday. The questions are, how many bad cards are there, why was this happening, and how big was the risk that the problem would lead to fraudulent voting?

Update, Sat. a.m.: Good skeptical story in the Plain Dealer today. The print edition headline is, "Registration fraud won't affect vote, officials say."

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