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."
Community Voters Project leaders have said the incidents were isolated cases, and they fired workers engaged in such activity.
Jim Pelura, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said his group is keeping a close eye on new registrations in the state. But he said he has seen few problems.
ACORN has been active in past Maryland elections. In 2002, it signed up 22,000 people to vote.
ACORN has also challenged election laws in Maryland that it believed could impede registration efforts. In August, a judge ruled in the group's favor in a case from 2006. The group said the Maryland Transit Administration violated its members' free-speech rights by adopting permit rules that made registering voters at bus and subway stations more difficult.
In 2004, the ACORN group in Prince George's County was a leading proponent of the ballot effort to amend the county charter and expand the size of the county council. ACORN came under some criticism locally because the movement was largely funded by developers, and critics believed it was an effort by then-council member Democrat Thomas R. Hendershot to retain power on the board.
Hendershot, whose home was recently raided by the FBI as part of an investigation into development in the county, was being forced off the council by term limits. Voters chose not to amend the charter, and Hendershot left the council in 2006.
The group was an issue again during February's hard-fought Democratic primary for Congress in Montgomery and Prince George's counties between longtime incumbent Albert R. Wynn and Donna F. Edwards.
In a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, Wynn's campaign accused Edwards of illegally colluding with independent groups supporting her campaign. He cited ACORN as one such group, noting that several organizations supporting Edwards all listed ACORN's New Orleans address.
Independent election law experts who reviewed the complaint at the time said they saw little evidence to support Wynn's complaint. Edwards won the election, and the complaint is still pending at the FEC.
Edwards (D-Md.) dismissed complaints against ACORN and said they will do little to solve other possible problems on Election Day, including long lines and broken machines.
"This is just politics, and it's going to go away," she said.
Staff writer Theola Labbé-DeBose contributed to this report.