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SUMMARY: McCain and the GOP link Obama and ACORN, but the connection seems more partisan then perilous.
With Election Day less than a month away, John McCain's campaign and the Republican National Committee have been warning voters of Barack Obama and his ties to the community organizing group ACORN.
ACORN was founded in 1970; its acronym stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. ACORN's agenda includes left-leaning causes such as voter registration drives for low-income groups, initiatives to increase the minimum wage and programs offering help to victims of predatory lending.
By all indications, ACORN operates within the American political mainstream, though clearly it favors the left side of the ideological spectrum. Its voter registration efforts tend to focus on the low-income, minorities and youth, all traditional Democratic constituencies. Obama received an endorsement from the group's political action committee in February 2008 when the Democratic primary was in full swing. But that's not to say Republicans never support ACORN's efforts: McCain himself appeared at a 2006 rally in favor of immigration reform, sponsored in part by ACORN.
The primary allegation against ACORN is that its voter registration drives result in many phony registrations. ACORN itself admits that some of its workers, in their attempts to meet registration goals, have turned in registration forms for people who do not exist or don't live in the geographic area. (Notorious examples include Mickey Mouse and the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys.) ACORN says the problems are isolated, and that it works with officials to correct them. They claim to have registered 1.3-million people to vote, so a small number of irregularities are to be expected. (For more on ACORN and the controversy surrounding its voter registration drives, read the St. Petersburg Times story here .)
Several states are investigating the group's voter registration efforts. McCain brought up ACORN at the candidates' final debate on Oct. 15, 2008, saying that ACORN was "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." The next day, press reports cited anonymous sources saying the Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking into the group, but ACORN said it had had no contact with federal investigators.
On Oct. 17, the Obama campaign blasted the leakers, saying it was evidence that law enforcement was in an "unholy alliance" with partisan political operatives to undermine public confidence in the voting process. The campaign released a letter it sent to Attorney General Michael Mukasey asking for an investigation. "Republican Party officials and operatives nationwide, including the candidates themselves, are formenting specious voter fraud allegations, and there are disturbing indications of official involvement or collusion," wrote Robert Bauer, general counsel to the Obama campaign.
It's unknown what the results of the ongoing investigations will be, but past investigations might give us some indication. In 2007 in King County, Wash., prosecutors filed charges against seven ACORN workers and reached a civil agreement with ACORN that the organization would monitor its workers more carefully.
"A joint federal and state investigation has determined that this scheme was not intended to permit illegal voting," said King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg at the time. "Instead, the defendants cheated their employer, ACORN, to get paid for work they did not actually perform. ACORN's lax oversight of their own voter registration drive permitted this to happen."
The McCain campaign issued numerous charges about Obama's connection to ACORN in an Oct. 10, 2008, memo, which the Obama campaign has disputed. We selected the following allegations to examine in depth.
• In 1992, Obama directed Project Vote, "an arm of ACORN that also encouraged voter registration," according to the McCain campaign. Obama did direct Project Vote, but it is a separate organization from ACORN. This year, Project Vote and ACORN worked together on a nationwide voter registration drive, and they have worked together on other initiatives in the past. But they are separate organizations. We didn't find any evidence to indicate they had a relationship during the 1992 Illinois drive. And even if they did, Obama clearly directed the drive for the Project Vote organization. We couldn't find any allegations of impropriety related to the 1992 drive. We rate this statement False.
• The McCain campaign says Obama was "a trial attorney for ACORN." Obama represented ACORN in a voter registration case, but he was not a staff attorney. Obama worked for the civil rights firm Miner, Barnhill and Galland. He represented ACORN along with other plaintiffs in a case against the governor of Illinois, demanding that the state better enforce a new federal law known as "motor voter," which allowed people to register to vote when they got their driver's license. We rated this statement Half True.
During the third presidential debate, McCain made the additional charge that the Obama campaign directed campaign money to ACORN, calling the group "the same front outfit organization that your campaign gave $832,000 for 'lighting and site selection.'"
Here's what we know about that allegation: The Obama campaign paid a group called Citizens' Services $832,386 during the primaries. (For comparison, the Obama campaign has spent an overall $391-million through August 2008.) Some of the expenditures are listed as sound, stage and lighting, and others are listed as get-out-the-vote efforts. ACORN has said Citizens Services subcontracted out part of the get-out-the-vote work to ACORN, but ACORN officials say it was "a small amount." The Obama campaign said it paid Citizens' Services, who in turn paid $80,000 to ACORN. The two groups share offices in New Orleans.
We can confirm through campaign finance public records that Obama paid Citizens' Services, but we can't independently confirm what part of the contract ACORN actually received, so we are not ruling on that statement. We're including the facts of the matter here for our readers to consider for themselves.
John McCain campaign Web site, Campaign Memo on ACORN , Oct. 10, 2008
ACORN Web site, The Truth about ACORN and Barack Obama, accessed Oct. 14, 2008
Commission on Presidential Debates, The Third McCain-Obama Presidential Debate , Oct. 16, 2008
Project Vote Web site , accessed Oct. 14, 2008
Chicago magazine, Vote of Confidence , January 1993
Crain's Chicago Business, "40 Under Forty," Sept. 27, 1993, accessed via Nexis
ACORN v. Edgar, No. 95 C 174, No. 95 C 281, No. 95 C 433, No. 95 C 1387, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ILLINOIS, EASTERN DIVISION, 880 F. Supp. 1215; 1995 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4007, March 28, 1995, Decided , March 31, 1995
Chicago Sun Times, Strong, silent type; Obama's legal career: He was 'smart, innovative, relentless,' and he mostly let other lawyers do the talking , Dec. 17, 2007
Los Angeles Times, Obama's law days effective but brief , April 6, 2008
King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, statement on ACORN , July 26, 2007
The Associated Press, 7 charged with voter registration fraud , July 26, 2007
Federal Election Commission, Obama campaign expenditure reports, accessed via CQ Moneyline on Oct. 17, 2008