- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Recently, passionate arguments for depriving my community organization, ACORN, of billions of dollars of federal subsidies (which ACORN is not receiving) in response to crimes (for which ACORN has not been charged) in relation to a massive conspiracy to steal the 2008 elections (which never occurred) have been made by elements of the Republican Party and Fox News commentators.

ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is a community organization for low-income people and Americans of color. As anyone who ever has set foot in any of our considerably less-than-lavish offices can easily deduce, we are not receiving the billions of dollars in federal funds purported by various uninformed elected officials and media outlets. Nor are we receiving any federal contracts or subsidies to work on the U.S. census.

The real source of the animosity exhibited toward ACORN, as demonstrated the May 13 commentary in these pages by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and echoed by other Republican officials, is our success over the past several years in helping enfranchise huge numbers of black and Latino voters. ACORN’s successful 2008 voter-registration drive collected and turned in more than a million voter-registration applications in low-income black and Latino communities across the country.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, famously claimed during the presidential election in October that this effort threatened to “destroy the fabric of democracy,” but Election Day has come and gone, and democracy not only survived, but thrived. Millions more black voters participated than in any election in history, while - contrary to the jeremiads of some politicians - the number of cases of improper voting linked to voter-registration drives was zero.

We know from experience, however, that this success will only inspire another round of rhetorical attacks and legal harassment. Similar attacks about claimed voter fraud were made against ACORN and other voter-registration organizations in 2004 and 2006. After ACORN’s successful voter-registration drive in Florida in 2004, a Republican Party-affiliated law firm sued our organization over accusations that the plaintiff later admitted were false and amounted to defamation.

Baseless lawsuits against our organization have been filed and then dismissed or withdrawn in Ohio in 2006, in Pennsylvania in 2008 and elsewhere. Recent legal attacks on ACORN in Nevada, which we think also will be dismissed in turn, notably don’t even concern the accuracy or completeness of voter-registration cards, but the pay rates for canvassers who collected them. The goal of these attacks is not to stop voter fraud - it’s to stop ACORN.

A central figure in the U.S. Attorneygate scandal, David Iglesias (Republican former U.S. Attorney in New Mexico) testified he was forced from office because he refused Karl Rove’s and then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ pressure to charge ACORN with voter fraud after he concluded no such fraud had occurred. The resulting investigation into this perverting of law enforcement for partisan purposes contributed to the resignations of both Mr. Rove and Mr. Gonzales.

Mrs. Bachmann cites the results of our own strict policy of flagging even the possibility of wrongdoing by any part-time employee as evidence of a deeply nefarious organization at work. On the contrary, ACORN took pains in setting up last year’s registration drives to deal with the reality that, just as any large department store will have some workers who shoplift, any large voter-registration operation will have a few workers who turn in bogus registration forms because they want to get paid without doing their work. These bad forms don’t affect the vote, but they do waste time and money and provide fodder for distorted reports of voter fraud. Canvassers were warned that if they deliberately turned in a single bad form, they would be prosecuted - and some are, usually with evidence we brought to officials.

Even U.S. Attorney Bradley Schlozman - who in 2006 politicized the routine local prosecutions against four former ACORN canvassers - later testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that “ACORN was the victim in this case.”

Clearly, Mrs. Bachmann, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of their cohort think it would be better if community organizations like ACORN just stopped helping black, Latino and young citizens to the voter rolls.

And here - it may surprise many to learn - we at ACORN agree.

In every other democracy in the world, maintaining a current list of eligible voters is a public responsibility. In America, however, the burden has long fallen to private community organizations like ACORN to bring eligible voters into the process. It is long past time for the United States to implement a modern voter-registration system in which the government maintains and updates lists of all citizens eligible to vote.

Having the government take over the job of maintaining the voter rolls would enable both ACORN and Mrs. Bachmann to increase work on the broader community services that are the real point of both of our jobs. Certainly Mrs. Bachmann’s 6th Congressional District in Minnesota needs more services - it leads the state in foreclosures!

We challenge Mrs. Bachmann to roll up her sleeves and join ACORN and the other nonprofit agencies that are working hard every day to help struggling homeowners in the 6th District avoid foreclosure and stay in their homes.

It’s time to put aside the shrill, partisan attacks and join together to help preserve the American dream of homeownership for millions of Americans.

Bertha Lewis is chief executive officer and chief organizer of ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now).

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