The U.S. Supreme Court today blocked a lower court order that would have required Ohio election officials to accelerate efforts to root out invalid voter registrations before the November 4 election—a move that critics of the order said could have jeopardized the voting rights of an estimated 200,000 potential new voters.
But the decision is not likely to quiet the Republican-led crusade to identify potentially fraudulent registrations—particularly in battleground states like Ohio, where a conservative organization has filed a racketeering suit against the left-leaning voter registration group ACORN, and Sen. George Voinovich has asked for swift investigations of any fraud allegations.
GOP nominee John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin in recent days have made potential registration irregularities and ACORN the centerpiece of an effort to characterize Democrats as potential future election stealers. In this week's presidential debate, McCain said that ACORN, which has registered 1.3 million new voters this presidential election cycle, could be "destroying the fabric of democracy."
ACORN, which Democratic nominee Barack Obama has worked with in the past and whose affiliate he paid about $800,000 for a get-out-the-vote effort, is one of many third-party organizations that hire people to sign up new voters. It and other groups are required to turn in to election officials all registration cards their workers collect—even the ones that they have flagged as potentially fraudulent. Election officials further cull the list for irregularities. As a result, election experts say, it's rare that noneligible people actually end up voting.
(The New York Times reported earlier this year that despite a five-year Justice Department "crackdown" on voter fraud, only 120 people had been charged and 86 convicted. Most of those charged were Democrats, the newspaper found, and their wrongdoing usually amounted to mistakenly filling out registration forms or misunderstanding eligibility rules.)
Democrats, voting rights groups, and even Republicans like Florida Gov. Charlie Crist have characterized McCain's comments and the latest GOP effort to trumpet registration irregularities as overblown. The American Civil Liberties Union labeled the effort in Ohio to purge lists of new registrants whose names don't match up with government driver's license and Social Security lists as "political maneuvering" intended to intimidate legally registered voters.
ACORN, says one national election official, has "simply become the poster child for all that is problematic with third-party registration." In Washington state two years ago, seven temporary ACORN workers were charged with voter fraud for filling out and submitting more than 1,800 fake cards during a voter registration drive in 2006. No fraudulent votes were cast, however, because election workers discovered the problem before names were added to the rolls. Convicted workers served jail time.
ACORN was required to sign a settlement that mandated increased oversight. "They were put on a short leash," says David Ammons, spokesman for Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed, who had characterized the ACORN workers' actions as the greatest election-related fraud the state had ever seen. "ACORN agreed to pay prosecution costs, to cease and desist questionable behavior, and to have their work reviewed by their own counsel and election authorities," Ammons says. "They were and are under a microscope." He says that ACORN is a "modest presence" in the state this year, and that "no report of any problem has reached our ears."
Election officials have to balance their efforts to root out the potential for fraud with what many experts say is a larger issue: voter intimidation and attempts at suppression. The battle lies in what's excessive and what's reasonable—and that, one election official said, "depends on who you talk to. Who is responsible so voters aren't hurt, participation is protected as is the integrity of the process?" There is increasing agreement across party lines that third-party voter registration groups need better training and oversight for their workers, who often have to meet minimum registration thresholds to get paid. Some state officials have even mulled outright bans on such groups.
But it's clear that at least until Election Day, ACORN will remain a Republican target. McCain issued a statement after the Supreme Court ruling that accused Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner of engaging in "efforts to minimize the level of fairness and transparency in this election." And just this morning, New Mexico Republicans said they "believe 28 people voted fraudulently" in a statehouse primary race in June. New Mexico, like Ohio, is one of the states still in play in the presidential election.