ACORN's bad seeds

The Republicans didn't need to manufacture a voting scandal to hang on the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Besides sloppy voter registration — not actual vote fraud — the organization has plenty of real problems worth scrutiny.
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The Republicans didn't need to manufacture a voting scandal to hang on the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Besides sloppy voter registration — not actual vote fraud — the organization has plenty of real problems worth scrutiny.

With a seemingly out-of-left-field attack on ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Sen. John McCain during the final presidential debate brought a little-known organization to national attention. He said the group is on its way to "maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history," that ACORN "may be destroying the fabric of democracy." Conservatives have been attacking ACORN off and on for years. This latest slam at the presidential-candidate level revealed more about ACORN's detractors than it did about the group itself, which should be scrutinized and even criticized, but not for the reasons cited by McCain.

ACORN's goal for this year was to register 2 million new voters, an ambitious number. In partnership with Project Vote (a a relationship that is now coming under fire), ACORN first claimed it had reached 1.3 million and was the most successful voter registration drive in history. But when registration fraud and other factors were weighed in a later audit, the actual number of new registrations turned out to be around 450,000. As pointed out by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the registration fraud was perpetrated by canvassers who, as in a Seattle case, went to the library and copied fictitious names from baby-name books and directories rather than engage in the difficult work of approaching strangers and asking them to register.

The P-I story trounced McCain's allegation that the petty wrongdoings of canvassers looking for an easier go of it constitutes a threat to "the fabric of democracy":

In issuing his dire warning in the debate, McCain apparently conflated voter-registration fraud with voter fraud. Voter-registration fraud — at least, of the type ACORN workers committed in Seattle last year and allegedly engaged in elsewhere this year — is annoying, potentially costly to taxpayers and certainly illegal, but not, by itself, a serious threat to democratic foundations.

Writing in Editor & Publisher, Glenn W. Smith identifies McCain's as a familiar Karl Rove ploy: "accuse your opponent of your own unethical or illegal acts." Smith details the manner by which cries of voter-registration fraud have been used to intimidate and prohibit people from voting, which really does threaten the fabric of democracy.

It's this legacy of voter suppression and disenfranchisement that led Obama to associate himself with ACORN in the first place, when in 1995 he and two other attorneys represented the organization against the state of Illinois. They sued successfully to force the state to comply with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the "motor voter" act, which required states to make it easier for citizens to register, adding the service to driver's license centers and other public facilities.

Voter registration is not simply a voter apathy issue. As enumerated in a New York Times editorial:

... Republicans aren't saying anything about another more serious voter-registration scandal: the fact that about one-third of eligible voters are not registered. The racial gaps are significant and particularly disturbing. According to a study by Project Vote, a voting-rights group, in 2006, 71 percent of eligible whites were registered, compared with 61 percent of blacks, 54 percent of Latinos and 49 percent of Asian-Americans.

There are no details available for the ethnic breakdown of the 450,000 people ACORN helped register to vote, but the group focuses on historically disenfranchised, low-income residents of minority ethnicity. ACORN might be a threat to Republican Party victory if those newly registered voters turn out at the polls in favor of Obama.

But voter registration is not the only thing that makes ACORN abhorrent to right-wing conservatives.

The group has a notable enemy at Rottenacorn, which calls ACORN "a bad seed" and argues

ACORN says it is a community group, but it is really a multi-million-dollar, multinational conglomerate. Its political agenda is driven by a relative handful of anti-corporate activists.

The inflammatory language used on this Web site would seem to support McCain's assertion that ACORN wants to destroy the fabric of our democracy, until you look closely at the "Fraud Map," which does nothing more than list the instances of canvassers passing off bad voter registrations, already documented in the press. There's also a link to a study done by the Employment Policies Institute (EPI), which calls itself "a non-profit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth." However, EPI's executive director is Richard Berman of Berman & Co., a lobbyist for the food, beverage, and tobacco industries. EPI's main study area seems to be in opposition to the "living wage," a key ACORN position issue, one that Berman has lobbied against. EPI even shares an office space with Berman & Co., and Berman/EPI own the Rottenacorn Web site.

The EPI report, flawed as it is by its authors' disinclination to disclose who they are and who funds them, has been disseminated throughout the media and is quoted by writers for the National Review and many others without mention of EPI's affiliation with the lobbying company. ACORN has also been attacked for allegedly benefitting from the federal credit bailout, but the group maintains that it accepts no government funding, that it is funded through private memberships and donations.

However, even before the recent probes and whistle-blowing, ACORN engendered criticism over embezzlement within its ranks. With the headline "Canvassers, not ACORN, at fault," the point of the recent P-I story was to delineate the ACORN organization from its few "bad seeds." The EPI report succeeds despite its questionable origins in part because it contains some damning truths. One is that, hypocritically, ACORN does not provide the wages and working conditions to its own employees that it campaigns to require of businesses. In 1995, according to The Wall Street Journal, ACORN sought exemption from the California minimum wage on the basis that "the more that Acorn must pay each individual outreach worker ... the fewer outreach workers it will be able to hire." Obviously, this is the same argument a business might make.

There's also the question of working conditions, as employees in ACORN and like organizations are expected to devote themselves to the cause, and that means putting in oftentimes far more than 40 hours per week, for very little pay. Efforts to organize ACORN workers have been spurned.

While they certainly violated the law and basic ethics, I have some sympathy for these "bad seeds" who submitted phony registrations. As a canvass manager for MoPIRG in the early 1990s, I supervised several people who were what we called "professional canvassers," those who made the rounds working at local organizations like ACORN for as little as $9,000 annually. One was the Rev. Artis Dease Jr., a fundamentalist Baptist minister who walked the neighborhoods every weekday despite ailing health.

Back then, the scuttlebutt in St. Louis' activist community was that ACORN was to be avoided as a place of employment because of mismanagement and poor wages (bad even in a market notorious for low wages). The EPI report contains this excerpt from a satirical help-wanted ad written by ACORN employees:

Immediate Openings. Have you always wanted to be a martyr? ACORN is currently hiring community organizers to dedicate their lives at the expense of everything else for a least a year for a minimum of 54 hours a week. Job duties include door knocking by yourself to sign up members (sometimes at night); developing leadership; planning meetings, protests and rallies; running campaigns and fundraising. Working for ACORN is a position of privilege, so if you are single, young, can go for weeks without a paycheck, and you think you have what it takes, call us at 555-ACORN. Fluency in Spanish and the willingness to neglect your own well-being a plus.

The satire sadly rings true. While it is certainly understandable that employers in social change politics might expect employees to go above and beyond the call of duty, to expect this kind of commitment while striking a patently hypocritical stance on the living wage issue is appalling.

For their part, liberal commentators have come down hard on the canvassers for being "bad seeds" who have soiled ACORN's reputation. Much has been made of the canvassers' duplicity and even stupidity. Many of ACORN's canvassers are recruited from the very neighborhoods ACORN is working within to improve. While certainly providing an outlet for the powerless is a noble goal, what happens is that people with few options take up the hard work of canvassing for very little pay. While there's no excuse for fraud, a few Mickey Mouse listings on a sheet of paper do not represent the height of evil for someone who might be, at worst, exploited by the very organization he's supposed to receive help from, and, at best, desperately trying to earn a living.

Years after my activist days, I learned that Artis Dease died during one of St. Louis' record heat waves; he was found in his apartment with one fan on but the windows shut — a security measure in a crime-prone neighborhood. All the time he worked for us at MoPIRG, I'd assumed he was as old as he looked: old enough to retire, old enough to need a good long vacation from walking St. Louis' neighborhoods. But he was only 53 when he died. His hard life had taken its toll.


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