Accountability

Published — October 16, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

ACORN: Stuck between a law and a hard place

Introduction

The McCain campaign is skewering the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) for turning in fallacious voter registration forms. During Wednesday’s debate the GOP presidential candidate said 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.” But the group, along with major news organizations, contends that in many states, laws require the submission of the registration forms — faulty or not. So, if the group is required to turn in the forms regardless, why the accusations?

To understand why ACORN is getting so much flak, it’s important to understand how the group works. More than 13,000 individuals, employed by the organization, went out and collected voter registration forms, according to ACORN’s website. It’s likely that a few of these individuals falsified the forms now in question; in 2007, canvassers working for ACORN in Missouri and Washington state admitted falsifying voter registrations. But ACORN also says it hired anywhere from two to 20 employees per office to comb over the piles of forms for fraudulent submissions. Instead of discarding these forms (a policy that seems like it might save them legal troubles), the group flags them as problematic, fires the employee responsible, has a supervisor hand the forms in anyway, and encourages the state to prosecute the wayward ex-employee, according to the group.

So let’s look at one of the states where issues with ACORN have been raised. In Nevada, state investigators raided ACORN’s office last week. Bob Walsh, a public information officer for the Nevada secretary of state, pointed out that the group has not been charged with anything. So far all the secretary of state’s office has done is execute a search warrant. Officials there are currently looking through ACORN’s records.

Walsh also said that ACORN should definitely have turned in the forms, even if they were false and ACORN knew they were false. In a state like Nevada, the law for third-party registration groups is particularly complicated. These groups must sign up with the secretary of state, who keeps track of the unique identifier of each registration form distributed to them. The voter registration organization is required to return every form it takes, whether completed or blank. That’s why ACORN submits registrations that anyone could tell are probably a big fat joke.

But Nevada’s law also forbids “knowingly falsifying an application to register to vote.” Ostensibly that’s why the secretary of state is looking into ACORN’s records to begin with: The group turned in obviously false registration forms. But that’s a separate part of the law and does not change ACORN’s obligation to turn in all the forms. In short, it’s not clear that in Nevada ACORN was wrong to turn in the forms; indeed, it appears the group was trying to follow the law.

While voter registration law does vary state by state, ACORN follows the same procedure across the country. All of the secretary of state’s offices PaperTrail contacted, however, said that third-party registration groups should turn in fraudulent-looking forms, but can flag them to alert election officials to their suspicions. Here’s a run-down of the sorts of laws ACORN is subject to in some key swing states:

OHIO

In Ohio, anyone who is paid to register voters must return the registration forms they complete to the office of the secretary of state.

MISSOURI

In Missouri, paid canvassers must register with the secretary of state as “voter registration solicitors,” but are required to submit the forms they collect.

NEW MEXICO

In New Mexico, a “third party registration agent” signs up with the secretary of state and provides “sworn statements for each registration agent . . . stating that the agent will obey all state laws and rules regarding the registration of voters.” If the forms are filled out in their entirety, the groups have to deliver the forms within 48 hours, even those that appear fraudulent. [New Mexico Election Handbook 1-4-49 — available here.]

MICHIGAN

In Michigan, there are no particular rules governing third-party voter registrations.

NORTH CAROLINA

In North Carolina, it is a misdemeanor to not submit a completed form. Voter registration workers must deliver the forms at least 25 days before the election.

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