Accused Registration Group Has No Voter Drives Here

ACORN, which advocates for low-income voters, admits there has been voter registration problems. But the group also says there has been success in helping 1.3 million people register to vote nationwide. Video by AP
By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 18, 2008

An advocacy group whose voter registration activities are under investigation in several states has run drives to sign up voters in the Washington region in the past but not this year, according to group leaders and opponents.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, a 40-year-old group that organizes in low-income communities, has found itself at the center of the presidential campaign. Republicans have targeted ACORN in recent days, accusing it of fraudulently registering voters because some cards it has submitted in several states have included duplicate or fake names.

Locally, ACORN has been active in past elections and has worked on other issues, including fighting for homeowner protections and against payday lenders. But national and local leaders say they have not worked actively to register voters this year in the District, Virginia and Maryland, as they have done over the past 18 months in 21 other states.

Officials of several states are investigating the group, and news reports on Thursday cited unnamed law enforcement sources as saying the FBI is looking into the allegations.

In Wednesday night's presidential debate, Republican Sen. John McCain said the group was "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."

ACORN's top leader in Maryland defended the group this week, claiming that Republicans have unfairly criticized an organization that engages in important work on behalf of low- and moderate-income people.

Stuart Katzenberg, head organizer for Maryland ACORN, said Republican complaints about registration efforts have been overblown. He said the group reviews new registrations turned in by its workers and has itself reported to elections officials many of the problems Republicans have cited.

"We think that low- and moderate-income voters need to vote, and ACORN is very proud of the 1.3 million people we registered to vote this year," he said.

This year in Maryland, instead of signing up voters, Katzenberg said, the group has focused on lobbying in Annapolis for protections for homeowners facing foreclosure. The group also runs workshops to help workers fill out their income-tax returns.

In the District, the group has done work for low-income homeowners and for renters' rights. It also backed an unsuccessful petition drive last year to force Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's school takeover legislation to be put to a ballot.

ACORN does not have a Virginia office, but Republicans there have accused a different group of fraudulently registering voters. Three workers employed by the group Community Voters Project were charged with fraud in July after submitting voter registrations in Hampton that police suspected might be fake.

"ACORN may not be here, but somebody else is," said Mike Wade, a Republican chairman in the area that includes Hampton. "It's very well organized, it's extremely well funded and they have no problems, I can tell you, bending or breaking the law."

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