President Obama’s re-election campaign has appropriated for its voter-registration operation the name of an existing group, Project Vote, that has been the target of voter-fraud complaints tied to the much-criticized and now-defunct activist group ACORN.
“It’s astonishing,” said Thomas Fitton, president of the public-interest group Judicial Watch. “Project Vote has a terrible reputation for people who care about voter fraud, but the campaign doesn’t care.”
Obama for America announced Thursday that is launching Project Vote as an in-house effort to increase voter registration and participation among the Democratic base, including young voters, blacks, Hispanics, gays and American Indians.
“Project Vote will embark on a voter registration effort to maximize voter participation,” the campaign said in an email from its headquarters in Chicago. “Project Vote will drive our campaign strategy — from paid media, to digital outreach, to grassroots organizing and voter registration efforts — to communicate with and engage key demographic groups.”
But a Washington-based group already has the name Project Vote Inc., and its officials point out that they own the name.
“We’re always happy to see candidates take an interest in voter registration,” Project Vote Executive Director Michael Slater said in a statement. “However, while we wish them good luck in their registration efforts, Project Vote Inc. holds the trademark for that name, and has been conducting voter registration activities using that name continuously since 1994.”
Mr. Slater said his organization has contacted lawyers representing Obama for America, “and we have been assured that this matter will be resolved quickly and amicably.”
A spokesman for the campaign did not respond to a request for comment about the trademark issue.
The group’s name evokes Mr. Obama’s past as a community organizer.
In 1992, Mr. Obama served as director of Project Vote in Chicago, helping to register thousands of voters on the city’s South Side. In 1995, he was on a team of lawyers representing ACORN in a lawsuit.
Project Vote’s mission has involved registering and encouraging low-income and minority voters. In 2008, the group paired with ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) on a registration drive in 21 battleground states that Mr. Obama needed to win the White House.
Although Project Vote is officially nonpartisan, the focus of the ACORN/Project Vote drive was on groups leaning Democratic: blacks, Hispanics, young adults and low-income residents. ACORN at the time was the largest grass-roots community organizing group in the U.S.
The ACORN/Project Vote pairing subsequently came under fire for voter fraud.
In April, ACORN pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a scheme to pay illegal cash bonuses to its voter registration canvassers for registering voters in Nevada.
Senior ACORN executive Amy Busefink pleaded no contest in November to two counts of conspiracy to commit the crime of compensation for registration of voters. She was sentenced in January to one year of probation and fined $4,000.
ACORN is now in bankruptcy, partly a result of the notoriety gained when two conservative activists posed as a pimp and prostitute seeking legal and financial assistance from ACORN affiliates to open a brothel.
ACORN workers offered assistance, prompting a firestorm in Congress that led to a ban on federal funding for the group.
Mr. Fitton said the Obama campaign’s choice of the name Project Vote, in spite of such scandals, is “quite purposeful.”
“I think they want to confuse people,” he said. “Project Vote has a reputation for being partisan, and they want to trade off of it. All they’re concerned about is their base.”
The campaign’s effort also appears to be aimed at countering moves by Republican officials in at least a dozen states to toughen voter-registration laws, which some Democrats say will result in disenfranchising people who tend to vote for their party’s candidates.
Mr. Fitton, whose group has been investigating Project Vote’s effort to register people on public assistance in Colorado, said the Obama campaign’s use of the name amounts to a message to liberal groups, especially big labor, to work with the re-election campaign on registration and get-out-the-vote activities.
“It’s a whistle to the left saying, ‘We are Project Vote this time,’ ” Mr. Fitton said. “It’s a signal to the base.”
Obama advisers have said they are confident about the level of support from traditional Democratic groups heading into the 2012 election campaign. But turnout could be a concern, especially if the economy remains weak with unemployment above 9 percent nationally.
In forums this month across the country, for example, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have voiced frustration with Obama administration policies that they say have failed to produce enough jobs in the black community.
Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, said there is “a growing frustration in this country and in minority communities” over joblessness.