What’s Up With ACORN?

How a community-organizing group became Republican cause célèbre.

ACORN activists

With voter registration coming to a close, the community-organizing group ACORN has become a major target of criticism by Republicans in recent weeks. On Thursday, Slate’s John Dickerson reported that members of the crowd at a McCain rally in Wisconsin started shouting the organization’s name as a rallying cry. When did a group more typically known for its minimum-wage and housing campaigns become such a controversial organization in national politics?

In the run-up to the 2004 election. ACORN—that’s the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now—was founded in 1970 and has long been known for its activism surrounding local issues in urban areas. The group earned its fair share of criticism from the right over the years—not least for its controversial tactics, which have included disrupting a speech by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995. In 2003, Manhattan Institute scholar Sol Stern described ACORN as promoting “a 1960s-bred agenda of anti-capitalism, central planning, victimology, and government handouts to the poor.”

These days, Republicans are accusing ACORN of committing widespread voter-registration fraud. The group has been involved in registration efforts since its early days, but that aspect of its work did not earn much criticism until recent years. In 1993, Newsday reported that the New York State Senate had held hearings over the legality of ostensibly nonpartisan voter drives conducted by ACORN and sponsored by the state’s Democratic Party. In 1999, about 400 voter-registration cards submitted by ACORN in Philadelphia were flagged for investigation after a judge stated that “a cursory look would have suggested that they were all in the same hand.” Meanwhile, the earliest example of registration fraud documented on “Rotten ACORN,” a critical Web site put together by the Employment Policies Institute, comes from 1998—but that’s the only case cited from before 2003.

The group came under much stronger scrutiny, however, during its expanded registration efforts for the 2004 presidential campaign. In Florida, a former ACORN employee accused the group, in a lawsuit, of removing Republican registration cards and paying workers for each card collected—a felony under state law. (After the election, the worker’s suit was dismissed as lacking evidence, and a judge upheld ACORN’s countercharge of libel.) In October 2004, the Employment Policies Institute released a report (PDF) saying that the group had been “implicated in several voter fraud cases in states across the nation,” noting the Florida accusations along with reports that a New Mexico ACORN employee had registered a 13-year-old to vote and that a Minnesota employee had been found with 300 unfiled registration cards in his trunk. At the same time, the U.S. Justice Department placed a greater emphasis on prosecuting registration fraud. (David Iglesias, one of the U.S. attorneys whose firing precipitated an investigation of the Justice Department, claims he was removed for declining to prosecute the ACORN employee in New Mexico—and also failing to respond to other fraud accusations made by state Republicans. The Minnesota man, on the other hand, pled guilty to two felonies.)

The rhetoric surrounding ACORN has grown louder in the 2006 and 2008 campaigns. (Barack Obama was part of a legal team that represented ACORN in a voting-rights case in the 1990s; his campaign has denied claims that he ever worked for the group in another capacity or trained its employees.) After a Las Vegas ACORN office was raided by Nevada authorities this week, House minority whip Roy Blunt called for a full-scale investigation of the organization, saying that fraudulent registrations “slows down the processing of those who are legitimately trying to register to vote.” ACORN’s supporters, however, say the group flags problematic registration cards for election officials and that no one has shown any link between registration fraud and fraudulent ballots actually being cast on Election Day.

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Explainer thanks John Atlas of the National Housing Institute, Jonathan Bechtle of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, Tim Miller of the Employment Policies Institute, and Lorraine Minnite of Barnard College.