EDITORIAL: What is ACORN?

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The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN, is under investigation by state and federal authorities for its voter registration drives. Allegations are that ACORN’s get-out-the-vote efforts have produced thousands of fraudulent registrations. The probes are encouraging; America wouldn’t be in position to criticize other nations of ballot-stuffing if it permits the same at home. What’s most encouraging, though, is that House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio is calling for ACORN to be defunded. “The latest allegations of voter registration fraud by ACORN are further evidence that this group cannot be trusted with another dollar of the taxpayers’ money,” he said.

ACORN helped make the term “affordable housing” a Washington staple. So as the roots of the financial crisis are laid bare, take a hard look at ACORN.

ACORN has its roots in the community-organization teachings of Saul Alinsky, who mobilized Chicago’s stockyard workers in the 1930s. The organization was founded as the Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now by Wade Rathke, a protege of George Wiley, the civil-rights activist who later engineered the Poor People’s Campaign with his founding of the National Welfare Reform Organization. After fighting for “motor-voter” registration in the 1990s, which allowed people to register to vote at departments of motor vehicles, ACORN began expanding its voter registration activities. Since 2004 it has come under scrutiny for producing thousands of fraudulent registrations, and 15 employees intent on exploiting their pay-per-registration policy to make money have been indicted or convicted of voter registration fraud. But it didn’t start out that way.

If the political left is an abstract concept for social justice and socialist sentiments, then ACORN is its avatar. ACORN’s work has been primarily focused on affordable housing for low-income families first through community activism to force improvements to public housing. The group initially wanted to also increase welfare, which it succeeded in doing in cities across the country during the 1970s and 1980s, but the effort ultimately proved to be a failure. The concentrated pockets of poverty that resulted led to overwhelming crime that knew no borders; the residents themselves became easy prey for the criminal drug culture.

In 1984, ACORN expanded widely, establishing chapters in a dozen cities and winning over poor and working-class members who took up the mantle for living wages and single-payer health care. ACORN also protested against insurance redlining issues. It also founded a political action committee and started radio stations and produced television programming. In 1991, ACORN began using its community organizing and protest activities to encourage homeownership, lobbying for banks to offer low-interest loans to people of limited financial means with little to no collateral. ACORN’s work to defeat the weakening of the Community Reinvestment Act in 1991 found members protesting in the halls of Congress. Those efforts spurred anew their activity in voter registration and grass-roots political work.

Politicians have always had an uneasy relationship with ACORN regardless of political affiliation. Mayor Adrian Fenty, a Democrat, found that out when ACORN opposed his proposal to reform D.C. Public Schools. ACORN wanted the “takeover” plan to be presented via referenda despite the mayor’s support for ACORN’s work on renter’s rights.

The group has had its share of scandals from filing suit in California to exempt itself from the minimum-wage law, arguing that paying its employees more would diminish their activist zeal for the poor, to firing two of its workers who wanted to organize a union within its ranks. ACORN lost both battles, but ultimately partnered with the Service Employees International Union, which donates $2 million to ACORN each year. Mr. Rathke’s brother, Dale, embezzled nearly $1 million from the group, which his brother attempted to hide from the organization’s board.

The right to vote is as sacred an American right as the right to free speech. When either of those rights is impeded by intimidation and harassment, we all suffer. Here’s where fraud rears its head: ACORN pays its canvassers to register voters. Apparently, the more registrations, the more money the canvasser is paid. No wonder that the roster of “America’s team” landed on the registration rolls in Nevada. Every state that has an NFL team knows that “America’s team” is in Dallas not Nevada.

Mr. Boehner explained yesterday why the influence that ACORN has on politics and policy during these gloomy economic times is not prudent. “Sources of federal funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development or any other agency must be stopped,” he said. “Contracting for services between candidates for federal office and ACORN, as Senator [Barack] Obama has done, must end. Now that the taxpayers own Fannie Mae, any funding from Fannie Mae’s nonprofit foundation to ACORN must stop.”

More to the point, Mr. Boehner said: “ACORN spent decades promoting the housing policies that brought America’s economy to the brink, and similarly over the years has committed fraud on our system of elections, making American voters question the fairness and accuracy of the exercise of their most fundamental right under the Constitution. Now it is time to cut off ACORN before it grows even more destructive.”

The White House and Congress should move expeditiously. However, the investigation of fraud allegations should move as methodically as necessary to ensure successful prosecution.

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