As the McCain campaign continues to question the validity of 1.3 million new voter registrations filed nationally by ACORN, a grass-roots organization that advocates for the underprivileged, the president of ACORN's Washington chapter says his group has cleaned house since canvassers submitted almost 1,800 bogus voter-registration forms back in 2006.

Share story

After King County Elections officials uncovered what would later be described as the most egregious instance of voter-registration fraud in state history, John Jones said he had chat with then-King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng.

King County sheriff’s deputies were investigating six canvassers who had filled out nearly 1,800 voter-registration cards in fall 2006 with names they made up using phone directies and books of baby names. Jones’ organization, the state chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — commonly known as ACORN — had paid the workers $8 an hour to sign up low-income voters in King and Pierce counties.

According to Jones, Maleng, King County’s Republican prosecutor who died in May 2007, pulled Jones aside for a man-to-man talk in a hallway in the King County administration building. Maleng told Jones that as a community leader, it wasn’t enough for him to admit fault and take responsibility for it: Jones must make sure the mistakes made in fall 2006 never, ever happen again.

Last week — as Republican presidential candidate John McCain continued to question the validity of the 1.3 million new voters ACORN has registered nationally for the November election — Jones said Maleng’s words are forever burned into his memory.

Maleng “said he respected the good work ACORN does but he made it clear that if there were any more problems [with voter registrations], we’d be having a very different conversation,” Jones said.

Since signing a settlement agreement with King County in summer 2007, the local ACORN chapter has remained under a microscope. For now, it has eliminated its mass voter-registration drives, registering only 500 voters this year compared with the 37,000 it registered for the last presidential election in 2004.

Still, Jones said — and state and county officials confirmed — that Washington ACORN hasn’t made a single mistake in adding its newest voters to county rolls.

“No problems have been associated with ACORN [this year], but you can bet people are watching. They’re on a short leash,” said David Ammons, a spokesman for Secretary of State Sam Reed.

All eyes on ACORN

ACORN, which advocates for the underprivileged, was founded in 1970 and now has chapters in 110 cities across the country. The group recently completed a massive registration drive in poor and working-class neighborhoods — which tend to vote Democratic — across 21 states.

Bogus registration cards filled out in the names of cartoon characters and the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys have been targeted for investigation in about 12 states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, The Associated Press reported.

According to the AP, ACORN has said its own quality-control workers were the first to notice the problem registration cards — and flagged them before submitting them to election officials in every state that is now investigating them.

During the final presidential debate on Oct. 15, Republican candidate John McCain claimed that ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” He has demanded that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama detail his ties to the group.

Obama, an attorney who once represented ACORN in a 1995 lawsuit, has since requested that a special prosecutor be assigned to determine whether the FBI’s investigations of ACORN are politically motivated, The New York Times reported.

McCain’s attacks on ACORN have been widely covered by the national media — and mocked by comedians. Last week, Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” called ACORN “the biggest nut-based threat to America since Mr. Peanut tried to assassinate the GOP elephant to impress the Morton Salt girl.”

A University of Washington law professor says the GOP criticism of ACORN is a flimsy attempt to distract voters on the eve of what many consider the most important presidential election in recent history.

Eric Schnapper, who has worked on Republican and Democratic campaigns, said bogus voter registrations don’t translate into actual votes being cast. He pointed out that third-party voter-registration groups like ACORN are required by law to submit all filled-out forms to elections officials, even those that are suspected fakes.

“The casting of ballots by fictitious people is the Loch Ness Monster of election law: much discussed and never seen,” said Schnapper, a UW law professor since 1995. “The attacks on ACORN are like dumping tons of cyanide in Loch Ness to kill the monster.”

“I fabricated everything”

Clifton Mitchell Sr., a Tacoma father of two, was one of six ACORN canvassers charged in connection with the 2006 voter-registration scandal. Mitchell served more than 90 days in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of providing false information on a voter registration.

“I fabricated everything and if ACORN knew what I was doing, they would’ve shut it down immediately,” said Mitchell, 46. “It was a mistake, and I regret it.”

Three members of Mitchell’s voter-registration crew also served jail time, and a fourth person, a woman who was pregnant at the time, was sentenced to 96 days of electronic home monitoring, said Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff for King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. An arrest warrant was issued for canvasser Kendra Thill, of Tacoma, who failed to show up in court and has since disappeared.

Charges against an ACORN employee were dismissed because prosecutors couldn’t prove she knew the voter-registration cards she submitted to King County Elections were frauds.

While the investigation showed that Washington ACORN was the victim of canvassers who wanted pay without doing the work, it was clear ACORN’s lax supervision and quality-control measures allowed the fraud, Goodhew said.

Local ACORN officials signed a settlement agreement that stipulates quality-control measures and lays out how the organization will collect and submit its voter-registration forms. The agreement was also signed by Reed, the secretary of state, which makes it applicable in all Washington counties.

County and state officials were so quick to rein in ACORN because of the number of illegal votes that had been cast two years earlier during Washington’s gubernatorial election, Ammons said. After the close race between now-Gov. Christine Gregoire and her Republican challenger Dino Rossi in 2004, it was found that several people who cast ballots — including felons and voters who used the names of dead people — shouldn’t have been allowed to vote.

Though ACORN had nothing to do with those illegal votes, state and county officials were already “radicalized because of our experiences in ’04,” Ammons said. That translated into a “new commitment for a clean process” and as a result, he said, “we’re paying way more attention to elections from start to finish.”

Jones, the Washington ACORN president, said he welcomes the scrutiny. ACORN “cleaned house,” he said, noting that none of the employees who worked for Washington ACORN in 2006 are still working for the local chapter.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com