John Atlas is co-author of Saving Affordable Housing, and is currently writing a book on politics, democracy and poverty through the lens of ACORN. A longer version of this article will appear in the Summer 2007 issue of Shelterforce, the National Housing Institute magazine.
If you think it's safe to do your civic duty in George Bush's America, ask Matt Henderson. Henderson, the head organizer for ACORN in New Mexico, believed his grassroots group's effort to register poor, minority voters was a time-honored way of bringing disenfranchised people into the American democratic process. It almost got him indicted in October 2004, when it put him squarely in the crosshairs of a protracted fight between the Republican Party and ACORN over voting rights. It's a struggle that is likely to continue into the 2008 election.
ACORN, a little known, but very successful national grass-roots anti-poverty organization, came under White House fire after registering more than 1.6 million voters in the past two national elections: mostly poor and minority people who tend to vote Democratic, and mostly in swing states. Republican operatives went after ACORN hard, with a media smear campaign, trumped-up lawsuits in Florida, New Mexico and Ohio and pressure on state law-enforcement officials to file criminal charges against the group. Days before the 2006 election, a U.S. attorney in Kansas City brought a voter-fraud indictment against four people registering voters for ACORN, spurring a congressional investigation led by Iowa's Republican Senator Charles Grassley.
The GOP voter-fraud vendetta might have remained exactly where Bush loyalists wanted it—below the radar of the press—had it not been for the scandal surrounding the firing of eight U. S. attorneys, including David C. Iglesias of New Mexico. Iglesias lost his job in December 2005 after he declined to prosecute a voter-fraud case against ACORN, which had been registering large numbers of voters in the state's low-income and largely minority neighborhoods in 2004. Prominent New Mexico Republicans, including U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, had repeatedly complained to chief White House political strategist Karl Rove about Iglesias' failure to bring voter-fraud indictments. Once Iglesias said he couldn't prove a case against ACORN, his days were numbered.
ACORN became a target because of its successful voter-registration work. As the 2004 election approached, then-Attorney-General John Ashcroft launched a broad initiative to crack down on supposed voter fraud in battleground states, including Florida, Missouri, Ohio and New Mexico, where ACORN was making headway registering voters. In all of those states, Republicans filed suits against ACORN for voter fraud, and, in every case, ACORN was exonerated.
Nevertheless, conservative media continued to smear the group. In October of 2004, right-wing news outlets pounced on a story about the organization mishandling voter forms and, according to Rush Limbaugh, "trying to register voters two and three times." Two years later, after the 2006 election, the Wall Street Journal promoted claims that ACORN was under scrutiny for election irregularities with one headline blaring, “A union-backed outfit faces charges of election fraud.” An editorial included an allegation-that ACORN gave cocaine to a worker in exchange for fraudulent registrations-that was a complete fabrication.
This brings the story to New Mexico. After Al Gore beat George W. Bush by just 366 votes in 2000, the state became the site of a bitter battle over voter registration. By the fall of 2004, as the race between Bush and John Kerry tightened, ACORN had signed up more than 35,000 voters statewide. But one of the new voters turned out to be a 13-year-old son of a Republican policeman. State Republicans filed a lawsuit. Matt Henderson was called to testify during the suit. And that's when Henderson almost got indicted.
Henderson was quoted in the press on October 10, 2000, stating “ACORN made photocopies of all the registration cards it delivered to the county.” At the time, it was legal to do so. By 2004, the law was changed making that practice illegal, and ACORN no longer made copies. At the trial, Henderson was asked if he continued that practice and on his lawyer's advice refused to answer. On October 1, 2004, the New Mexico Republican Party called on Iglesias to investigate Henderson for perjury and “suspect” practices.
Although the presiding judge dismissed the lawsuit for lack of evidence, Iglesias announced at a press conference that he would look into the matter, declaring, "It appears that mischief is afoot, and questions are lurking in the shadows." But, by January 2005, Iglesias concluded that his voter-fraud task force had not turned up enough evidence to bring a fraud case against ACORN. By early December 2005, he had been fired.
In theory, the U.S. attorney scandal should make it harder for the Bush administration to continue to level baseless charges of voter-fraud in an effort to challenge the registration of poor and minority voters. But there are few signs that they are planning to relent. Since 2003, according to the Boston Globe, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has hired 11 lawyers from the conservative Federalist society, including two people from the Bush-Cheney campaigns.
To be sure, ACORN hasn't been stopped in its tracks. As Henderson told me, "We will never be intimidated by baseless legal attacks." And looking ahead to 2008, organizers vow to run "issue campaigns" focused on boosting voter turnout through ballot initiatives such as minimum-wage increases, which brought people to the polls in Missouri and Montana in the 2006 elections.
More than 40 years after passage of the voting rights act, the efforts by the Bush White House to intimidate minority voters remind us that the agenda of the civil-rights movement remains unfinished. The outcome of the 2008 presidential race may well hinge on whether the Rove strategy or the ACORN strategy prevails.