Citing financial difficulties fueled in part by its image problem and Congress’ move to shut off funding to the organization, ACORN’s board of directors voted to dissolve its national office, state affiliates and field offices by April 1 and consider filing for bankruptcy protection.
While right-wingers celebrated the group’s demise, others saw the announcement in a much different light. It was the final throes of a political assassination writ large, according to nonpartisan political groups and campaign legal experts.
“ACORN has some bad management practices,” says Dan Tokaji, an elections law expert at Ohio State University’s College of Law, “but it’s certainly true that they were well beyond the scope of their mistakes. I don’t think there’s any question of that. I suspect that a lot of people on the right didn’t like the fact that ACORN was registering folks (to vote) in low-income and minority communities, which would tend to vote for Democrats.”
ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, was founded in 1970 to focus on social issues affecting under-represented groups in issues ranging from housing and minimum wage increases to investment programs and voter registration. Supported largely by private donors, the group eventually started receiving federal funding, which by 2009 had accounted for 10 percent of its operating funds.
Throughout much of its history, it earned support from both Democrats and Republicans.
That began to change during the 2004 presidential election cycle, when Democrats mobilized to attempt to oust President Bush. Seeing a possible liberal surge in voter registrations aided by ACORN, conservatives went on the attack, claiming the group was bribing voters to register (and by association bribing them to vote for Democrat John Kerry).
Those charges became louder during the 2006 mid-term elections and reached its crescendo in the 2008 presidential race.
As Election Day neared, ACORN faced civil lawsuits in several states related to election fraud and was the target of GOP-backed investigations at local levels. The largest damage came from an undercover video shot by two conservative activists in Baltimore that appeared to show ACORN employees advising them how to hide prostitution activities and commit tax evasion.
Little ultimately came of the lawsuits, and a judge ruled that the video, highly edited for effect, showed no illegal activity by the ACORN workers. But the damage was already done.
ACORN’s reputation was gutted, and Congress voted to stop the group’s federal financing. Though a New York judge later ordered ACORN’s funding restored, the bipartisan congressional move might have been the final nail in the group’s coffin as legal fees soared and private donations plummeted.
“It’s really sad because ACORN did so much for the community,” laments Mary Keith, Ohio ACORN’s chairwoman.
“Any time there was an ACORN article or ACORN was in the news, it was always negative. There was nothing about helping families facing foreclosure or helping raise the minimum wage or helping improve our schools. There was nothing about the work we did after Katrina. It was all about voter registration.”
Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Washington-based Campaign Law Center — a nonpartisan watchdog group founded in part by Trevor Potter, general counsel for U.S. Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign — says the voter registration charges were the most damaging for ACORN and largely without merit.
“A lot of people used ACORN as a reason that we need to curb voter fraud,” Hebert says. “The fact of the matter is that actual voter fraud is rare and has always been so. In most of these instances, it was ACORN contractors who acted improperly by filing duplicate registrations or fake names. They were largely caught by ACORN itself and appropriately prosecuted. I’m not aware of a single person improperly registered that actually voted.
“ACORN was an easy political punching bag.”
In fact, a 2005 report by the League of Women Voters of Ohio and the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio found four fraudulent ballots submitted in the state from 2002 to 2004, none of which were connected to ACORN.
In the 2008 election, a local audit spearheaded by Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, a Republican, found only two fraudulent ballots — neither connected to ACORN — while the McCain-Sarah Palin campaign’s “Honest and Open Election” committee found few cases of voter fraud nationwide.
Despite the spate of lawsuits filed by national conservative groups, citations of actual voter fraud were nearly nil, which wasn’t surprising, Hebert says.
“Most groups filed those sort of suits for the press release value, to try to shift the electorate rather than any real result,” he says.
Tokaji agrees, citing the big risk versus small reward for casting an illegal vote. If caught, a fraudulent voter faces a five-year prison term and a $10,000 fine.
Because the state checks registration applications against previous voter rolls and its Bureau of Motor Vehicles logs as well as other lists of current residents, duplicates and incorrect applications are largely eliminated, Tokaij says.
According to one account, disallowed ACORN registrations only slightly outpaced those filed with official voter registration offices nationally.
“The only reason we heard so much about voter fraud was that it was, clearly, an attempt to suppress votes,” Tokaij says.
Locally, the last of those types of lawsuits resolved itself a week before ACORN announced it was dissolving.
The Columbus-based Buckeye Institute’s 1851 Center for Constitutional Law filed suit against ACORN shortly before the 2008 election on behalf of two Warren County residents, claiming their rights were abridged by illegal voter registrations as a “potential illegal vote that has the capacity to dilute (legitimate) votes.” As the lawsuit worked its way through the courts, the complainants never cited a confirmed case of actual voter fraud connected to ACORN.
Cincinnati-based Federal Magistrate Judge Timothy Black recommended last May that the case be dismissed, but it continued.
Earlier this month, the 1851 Center announced it had reached a confidential settlement with ACORN, with 1851 Center Executive Director Maurice Thompson claiming the activist group agreed to “surrender their business license by June 1 and cease to operate in Ohio and cease to support or enable other groups to do what they do.”
The statement turned out to be more spin than fact. The Associated Press uncovered a copy of the settlement, in which ACORN did voluntarily surrender its business license but agreed only to “refrain in Ohio from supporting or enabling others ‘to engage in the type of unlawful conduct alleged’ in the lawsuit.”
ACORN’s local attorney, Al Gerhardstein, says the settlement was merely a “walk-away settlement.”
The organization had already closed its Ohio offices before Jan. 1, he says, so they no longer needed the business license. As for Thompson’s claim that ACORN agreed to never return, Gerhardstein says it’s untrue.
“ACORN agreed to never support illegal activities in the state of Ohio, which they hadn’t anyway,” he says.
In effect, the agreement held little real victory, Gerhardstein says.
Thompson declined to comment for this story.
Meanwhile, others are left to ponder ACORN’s legacy.
“I’m not going to defend what some of their contractors did, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that ACORN over the years did a lot of very good work, for one thing,” Hebert says. “Secondly, despite them closing their doors, I hope other groups will fill the void.”
Keith, who began working with ACORN six years ago in the fight to improve bus service for Cleveland Public Schools students, says the work of ACORN will carry on.
“It’s frustrating, seeing ACORN gone,” she says. “The communities are still here. They still need so many things. We tried to keep going, even taking money out of our pockets to try to keep working. I pray that people keep fighting for their communities, whether ACORN’s there or not.”