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Amid voting concerns, ACORN comes out of its shell

September 24, 2008

ROYAL OAK — As elections and foreclosures grab top headlines, a community organizer group is gaining more visibility for its voter registration drives and association with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Dave Lagstein, Michigan head organizer of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), spoke at an anti-George W. Bush bus tour event Sept. 23 in the Royal Oak Farmers Market parking lot.

He accused Bush of not doing enough to prevent the nation’s economic crisis despite the president’s signing of a housing rescue bill in July. Lagstein called it a “Band-Aid.”

“Even somebody as out of touch as Bush felt the need to do something,” he said.

Founded in 1970, ACORN says its activism helps low- to middle-income families on issues like foreclosures, health care, immigration and living wages. It also does voter registration drives, but some of those voter drives have drawn the attention of government officials.

Erroneous voters

Ruth Johnson, the current county clerk/register of deeds and a Republican, said the local clerks had a meeting Sept. 24 and learned that about two-thirds of the voter registrations coming into Oakland County this election cycle are invalid, mostly because they’re duplicates.

In Pontiac alone, about 4,500 registrations were duplicates or had something else wrong with them, she said. One person’s name in Oakland County was registered 12 different times with different signatures, she added.

Joe Rozell, Oakland County’s director of elections, chimed in and said that these irregularities are primarily coming from ACORN.

Secretary of State spokeswoman Kelly Chesney told C & G Newspapers that potential evidence has been turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. But she was confident about the integrity of the electoral system and said workers are putting in overtime to prepare for this election.

“They’re crosschecking (applications) against the statewide qualified voter file, and they’re working at processing those right now,” she said.

This is not the first time that ACORN’s voter registration drives have drawn this kind of attention. For instance, five ACORN workers who were indicted in 2007 for submitting false registration applications in Washington state were later convicted.

According to news reports, a flurry of suspicion has arisen over ACORN’s vote registration drives over the last couple of months in other states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina.

Sheila Smith, who is on a leave of absence from being ACORN’s Michigan political director, said in a Sept. 23 statement that the group has registered more than 220,000 new voters in Michigan.

Smith currently is running as a Democrat for Oakland County clerk/register of deeds this November against incumbent Johnson.

According to Smith, ACORN voter registration workers get part-time, hourly wages and receive training about voter registration requirements.

“As with any massive effort, there is the potential for errors,” she said. “The number of fraudulent registrations has not been confirmed; however, I take these allegations very seriously.”

Lagstein stressed that his group has been in constant communication with election officials. “The main thing is that we’re doing over a million cards nationally,” he said. “There’s not going to be perfection.”

Partisan politics?

The campaign for Republican presidential nominee John McCain is engaging in a campaign to attack ACORN, Lagstein said. “That is really a sign that the voter registration has had an impact and has become a political issue,” he said.

Meanwhile, ACORN has had some ties to Obama. In February, its political action committee endorsed him. ACORN is also a partner organization of Project Vote, a group that Obama helped direct while in Illinois in 1992, according to the Chicago Reader. As a lawyer, Obama also filed suit on ACORN’s behalf in a case about the “motor voter law” in 1995, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Obama Michigan spokesman Brent Colburn said ACORN’s registration drives are independent from the candidate’s campaign, and any efforts to connect the two entities are a smokescreen.

Although the campaign wants the maximum number of people legally registered by Oct. 6, it hopes that the secretaries of state appropriately deal with any irregularities that arise. “We want those situations fixed,” he said.

While Republicans make accusations against ACORN, the other side has denounced an alleged GOP plan to suppress the votes of Michigan residents with foreclosed homes.

According to The Michigan Messenger, a liberal news Web site, Macomb GOP Party Chairman James Carabelli told a reporter that he “will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren’t voting from those addresses.”

Carabelli declined to reply by press time.

Michigan GOP spokesman Bill Nowling refused to comment but referred to a statement in which Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis called The Michigan Messenger’s report a “complete fabrication.”

“There has never been a plan to use foreclosure lists to challenge voters,” Anuzis said. “There is no such plan, and there never will be such a plan. Period.”

The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee have since filed suit over the alleged tactic, and Obama spokesman Colburn is taking the initial report at face value.

“We can only base what we do off of statements that are made,” he said. “At the end of the day, we feel this is too important of an issue to not pursue it and make sure it absolutely does not happen.”

Chesney said she has only heard press accounts of the matter.

“We don’t have any evidence that a group is going to use these foreclosure lists,” she said. “I don’t really want to speculate on that part for the purposes of voter registration.”

Still, Lagstein said he would like to see the Secretary of State issue a directive that foreclosure lists can’t be used while legislators move to close a “legal loophole.”

“The main thing is there should be a legal, legislative (and) communications strategy to stop this practice,” he said.


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