A community activist group under fire for fraudulent voter registration defended itself Wednesday, saying it tried in vain to work with officials to get rogue canvassers prosecuted months before Tuesday's surprise raid on its office by state authorities.
"For six months we have been handing the Board of Elections smoking gun after smoking gun, saying, 'We want you to prosecute these people,' " said Matthew Henderson, regional director of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN. "They sat on them, then staged this raid where they acted as if they didn't know us."
Secretary of State Ross Miller, whose office is spearheading the probe, said it was necessary to collect evidence about serious problems that could prompt felony charges.
"It's very disappointing to think ACORN would minimize the importance of maintaining integrity in the (election) system," he said. "It's the equivalent of a suspected bank robber suggesting he was arrested because the police had nothing better to do."
Miller's office, working with the Nevada attorney general's office and the FBI, claim ACORN canvassers -- including prison inmates on work-release -- falsified and copied names on voter registration forms.
The investigation continued Wednesday as authorities examined evidence contained in documents and computers seized in Tuesday's raid on the group's downtown Las Vegas headquarters in the Commercial Center complex, 953 E. Sahara Ave.
ACORN is a nonpartisan organization, but it has a liberal political agenda and ties to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. The low-income people it seeks to enfranchise are a group that tends to vote Democratic. Neither the Democratic Party nor the Obama campaign worked with ACORN on the voter drive.
But with the election less than a month away and Nevada one of a half-dozen top swing states, partisans rushed in to make hay of the controversy, with its dark undertones of dirty political tricks. The Republican National Committee on Wednesday pointed to reports of suspect ACORN work in states including Missouri, Connecticut, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Indiana, and questioned its motives and agenda.
"This group is engaged in a systematic effort to undermine our electoral system," the RNC's Danny Diaz said in a telephone news conference.
Authorities, however, emphasized that they do not believe the election will be tainted because faked registrations wouldn't make it past the checks they're subject to. Phony addresses and duplicates never make it onto the voter rolls; registrations without valid driver's license or Social Security numbers require identification be shown at the polls.
"The investigation into potential registration fraud should not diminish Nevada voters' confidence that only eligible voters will be able to cast ballots on November 4th," Miller, a Democrat, said. "The investigation and information obtained in furtherance of executing the search warrant proves that our system works."
ACORN and its partner group, Project Vote, are working this year in 21 states where they say they have registered 1.3 million new voters. In Nevada, they have spent more than $1 million and registered more than 90,000 since February. Their stated goal is to make American democracy more representative by increasing the number of low-income citizens who cast ballots.
Until Oct. 4, the last day canvassers could register voters for the upcoming election, ACORN recruited and trained 700 canvassers whom it sent to government offices, stores and other parts of lower-income neighborhoods. Armed with clipboards and stacks of voter registration forms, they spent hours each day on their feet in sometimes brutal heat.
Although the workers were paid an hourly wage and ACORN officials said they weren't subject to strict quotas, they were told to shoot for 20 registrations a day, subject to retraining if they fell short and firing if they consistently didn't come close to the target.
Authorities say that created an incentive for the workers to forge and copy forms. ACORN officials agree that some individual workers did so, but they say the organization worked to find and fire the fraudsters, and could not get authorities to further pursue the incidents.
Joe Camp, who oversaw the voter drive's quality-control operation, said that whenever a batch of registrations didn't seem kosher based on phone checks, they were submitted to the Clark County Election Department with a "Problematic Card Cover Sheet." ACORN on Wednesday supplied examples of such submissions going back to April.
By law, ACORN could not simply not turn in a suspect registration, even if it was in the name of Mickey Mouse. It is a felony to discard or destroy voter registration forms, which are tracked with individual serial numbers.
Camp said 46 packets of especially suspicious forms, totaling about 700, were submitted, and more than 50 canvassers were fired. Henderson, the regional ACORN director, said the group wished legal action would have been taken against those people.
"Imagine if the authorities had made a federal case in April, found the individual who committed this fraud and prosecuted them under Nevada law," Henderson said. "Imagine how that would have been a help to ACORN to get our direction to our canvassers to take this seriously." Future canvassers, he said, would have been deterred from cheating knowing they wouldn't get away with it, and in turn fewer suspect registrations would have been turned in.
Clark County Registrar of Voters Larry Lomax acknowledged that ACORN did flag some suspicious registrations, but plenty more were dumped on his office to weed out.
"It was a pathetic effort at quality control, if it was a serious effort," he said. "I know their argument is they're out there doing a greater good, but they're unbelievably sloppy. What I saw was a very poorly overseen effort to register voters."
Lomax said his role was simply to pass on potential fraud to the secretary of state's office, which has investigative authority that his office lacks.
Miller said although some evidence of fraud came from ACORN itself, other information came to authorities separately, leading to the determination that the organization's files had to be comprehensively examined to determine the scope of the problem. He declined to say whether it was the organization or only individual canvassers who were targets of the investigation or what potential charges they faced.
Project Vote is a separate nonprofit that works to liberalize voting laws and fight voter suppression in addition to the voter drives it contracts with ACORN to conduct. Its executive director, Michael Slater, compared the situation to that of a large retailer that hires thousands of employees, some of whom turn out to be dishonest and steal merchandise.
"Just like Target or Wal-Mart, when some workers are dishonest or they steal, they fire those workers and report them to the police," he said. "We don't then say Target or Wal-Mart is a criminal enterprise."
In 1992, Obama spent several months running a voter registration drive for Project Vote in Chicago. At the time, the group did not have its current relationship with ACORN, which also does housing-assistance and community organizing work in low-income communities across the country.
In 1995, Obama was one of a team of Illinois civil-rights lawyers who took up a case suing the state for failing to provide adequate voter registration opportunities under the National Voting Rights Act, known as the "motor voter" law for its provision requiring motor vehicle departments to take voter registrations. ACORN was the plaintiff in the case.
In the current election, ACORN's political action committee, which is separate from its community organizing functions, has endorsed Obama for president.
Because of those ties, Republicans link Obama to the spate of problems with ACORN and say he should have to answer for its alleged actions. "This is something they (the Obama campaign) should have to speak to, considering this group is engaged in systematic voter registration fraud not just in the state of Nevada but across the country," the RNC's Diaz said.
The Obama campaign has declined to address the links beyond noting that the campaign and ACORN do not work together in any way. In a prepared statement, campaign spokeswoman Kirsten Searer said, "The Obama campaign is committed to protecting the integrity of the voting process. We support the secretary of state's investigation and full prosecution of any illegal activities."
The Nevada Democratic Party also condemned "any efforts to improperly register voters."
Contact reporter Molly Ball at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.