A voter registration drive last year illegally required canvassers to meet quotas to keep their jobs and resulted in thousands of “garbage” registrations gumming up Clark County voter rolls, officials said Monday as they released a criminal complaint against the drive’s organizers.
The complaint names the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, as well as Chris Edwards, the group’s former Las Vegas field director, and Amy Busefink, who was regional director for voter registration.
In all, there are 26 charges of compensation for registration of voters and 13 charges of being a “principal” in the incident. An initial hearing has been set for 7:30 a.m. June 3 in Las Vegas Justice Court.
“In Nevada, it is unlawful for a person to provide compensation for registering voters that is based on the total number of voters a person registers,” said state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.
ACORN’s canvassers, she said, had to gather at least 20 voter registrations a day to keep their jobs. There was also a bonus program, known as “blackjack” or “21 plus,” which rewarded employees with $5 extra per shift if they brought in 21 or more completed registrations.
Canvassers under pressure to keep their jobs turned in registrations with fake names and phony addresses — even, in one case, the starting lineup for the Dallas Cowboys.
“These practices are clearly a violation of Nevada law,” Cortez Masto said. “By structuring employment and compensation around a quota system, ACORN facilitated voter registration fraud in this state.”
The organization is being targeted, she added, because it shouldn’t “hide behind or place blame on its employees” when the group’s policies required “illegal acts in performing the job.”
Scott Levenson, an ACORN spokesman, said the group cooperated in the investigation and that charging the organization is “frightfully absurd.”
“We’re a bit appalled at the political grandstanding on the part of the attorney general’s office,” he said. “This individual case is truly a situation where, the organization that was most harmed is the organization that is being charged.”
Both he and state officials said that the bonus system was instituted by Edwards, who did not respond to a request for comment Monday. That system was “in violation of ACORN’s national policies,” Levenson said.
“Incentives, bonus systems, are against any training that we do with our employees,” he said. Canvassers also don’t have to meet a strict quota to keep their jobs, he said.
“You expect someone to work,” he said. “If someone walks in every day with 17, their job’s secure. If we have a goal for an employee of 20 registrations, and they keep coming in day after day with two, there’s going to be an issue.”
In an affidavit supporting the charges, an investigator said that both ACORN employees and training materials set out a hard target of 20 registration forms per day for employees to keep their jobs.
“It was the policy of ACORN to terminate from employment canvassers who failed to obtain 20 (voter registration forms) per day,” stated Colin Haynes, an investigator with the Secretary of State’s office.
“However,” he added, “this was not uniformly enforced and it was left to each individual political organizer to deal with any of their canvassers who failed to meet this quota.”
Lisa Rasmussen, a local attorney representing ACORN, called the allegations against the group “patently false.”
“Even the state concedes in its charging documents that there was no 'quota’ system that was enforced by ACORN,” she said in an e-mailed statement. “Furthermore, the suggestion that a business cannot implement standards of quality control, performance goals and individual job performance tools is contrary to the First Amendment.”
She also said Busefink would not be available for comment.
The charges are Class E felonies, the penalty for which can be probation or one to four years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
At Monday’s announcement, state and local officials strenuously emphasized that the false voter registrations didn’t translate to people being able to vote fraudulently.
“This is a case of voter registration fraud,” said Secretary of State Ross Miller. “There is absolutely no evidence that there was any voter fraud in the last election.”
Larry Lomax, the Clark County registrar of voters, said his office reviewed the 91,002 voter registration forms turned in by ACORN, verifying that information on the form matched information attached to the voter’s driver’s license number or Social Security number.
If it didn’t, those registrations were tagged as requiring identification at the polling place.
There were 28,097 forms that were duplicates or changes of name, party or address, leaving 62,905 new voters.
Of those, 23,186 actually voted in the 2008 general election, according to a report prepared by Lomax’s office.
That means almost 40,000 of the new voters registered by ACORN didn’t vote, and of those, almost 19,000 had information on file that didn’t match what was turned in on the forms.
“That’s 48 percent of those forms that I believe are clearly fraudulent,” Lomax said.
“This is individuals ripping off their bosses because they have a quota to make.”
This voter registration work is not easy, Lomax noted. Canvassers are working in the summer heat and reaching out to people in poorer neighborhoods, all the while making $8 or $9 an hour.
“There’s a huge temptation to take the easy way out,” he said.
ACORN, founded in 1970, is an international community activist group that works on a broad range of issues. Locally, those issues include foreclosure prevention, immigration reform, and concerns in West Las Vegas, a predominantly minority area in central Las Vegas, about the closure of F Street near downtown.
Criticisms of ACORN’s voter registration drives are not new. In previous elections cycles, officials in several states have looked into whether the organization was turning in fake voter registrations, and conservative groups have long criticized the nominally nonpartisan organization as a front for liberal interest groups.
Lomax said he raised concerns about ACORN’s voter registration drive in 2006. “I’ve been trying to get someone to do something about this for a while,” he said.
Bonnie Greathouse, the head organizer at the Las Vegas office, said she wasn’t worried about fallout from the charges.
“We’ve had bad publicity before, and all it does is inform the community that we’re here working for the community,” she said. “People always come forward to our defense.
“We’re just community organizers, just like the president used to be.”
Contact reporter Alan Choate at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-229-6435.