On Oct. 7, Nevada authorities raided the Las Vegas offices off the community group ACORN Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now on allegations that the group submitted fraudulent voter registration cards. , featuring nonexistent addresses, duplicate applicants and in at least some cases, the names of the Dallas Cowboys football team. The McCain campaign has also released an ad linking Barack Obama to ACORN, reiterating the voter fraud allegations and claiming the organization "forced banks to issue risky home loans, the same types of loans that caused the financial crisis we're in today."
ACORN was founded by community organizer Wade Rathke in 1970, in Little Rock, Arkansas. Rathke, who had worked as an organizer for the National Welfare Rights Organization in Missouri, wanted to start a group that worked with an entire community, not just welfare recipients. The early version of ACORN helped people obtain clothing and furniture; it campaigned for schools to provide healthy, affordable lunches and promoted Vietnam Veterans' rights. Since then the organization has branched out into housing and workers' rights advocacy; it has helped hundreds of thousands of working-class and poor citizens obtain home loans, register to vote and fight for better wages. The Arkansas-based organization now has hundreds of affiliates in 41 states and claims to have registered 1.3 million people to vote in the 2008 election. Although the group is technically nonpartisan, its registration drives focus on impoverished minorities, most of whom are likely to vote Democratic, and the organization regularly endorses Democratic political candidates, including Barack Obama.
ACORN has been involved in politics since 1972, when it endorsed two of its members running for the Little Rock School Board. Over the next few years, the group expanded its ambitions beyond Arkansas opening its first multi-state offices in Texas and South Dakota and into national politics.
ACORN has also been plagued with a long series of lawsuits and scandals:
In 1995, it unsuccessfully sued the state of California, claiming that it should be exempted from minimum wage laws because paying its workers more would require the group to reduce headcount and would make its workers less sympathetic to the poor. (ACORN publicly supports the living wage and has led coalitions to win minimum wage increases in several states.)
In 1999 and 2000, Dale Rathke, Wade's brother, embezzled almost $1 million from ACORN and affiliated organizations. When his actions were discovered, the Rathke family agreed to pay the money back, but ACORN didn't alert members of its board or law enforcement; Dale Rathke remained on the company's payroll until June 2008 when the news of his wrongdoing came out. Wade Rathke resigned from his post, although he remains chief organizer for ACORN International.
In 1998, an Arkansas employee was arrested for falsifying voter registration forms. A year later, Philadelphia authorities flagged hundreds of registration forms, alleging that they were all written by the same person. In 2007, more than 2,000 fraudulent voter registration cards were submitted in Washington; three ACORN employees pleaded guilty to the crime.
In addition to the Nevada raid, voter registration drives in several other states have been scrutinized, while the group's campaigns to demand fair housing loan practices has opened it up to charges that it advocated risky subprime mortgages. On its website, ACORN has called the allegations of voter fraud "bogus" and "unfounded." The organization says it works with authorities and identifies all the fraudulent forms that it can, and that the campaign against its registration drives is a ploy to "disparage our work and help maintain the status quo of an unbalanced electorate."
The Democratic candidate's connections to ACORN are fairly well documented, and the group's field of endeavor community organizing makes it a tempting target for GOP strategists. In Chicago in 1992, Obama headed the Project Vote campaign an organization affiliated with ACORN which registered 150,000 voters on the city's the south side and helped elect Carol Moseley Braun, the country's first female African-American Senator. As an attorney, Obama worked on the team of lawyers that represented ACORN in a 1995 lawsuit in which it accused the state of Illinois of violating federal polling laws, and spoke at two leadership training sessions for ACORN employees a few years later. In February, the Obama campaign paid $800,000 to Citizen Services Inc. a consulting firm affiliated with ACORN for what the New York Times called "get-out-the-vote efforts", and erroneously reported it on campaign filings. It's interesting to note that John McCain has connections to ACORN as well; he was the keynote speaker at a 2006 rally co-sponsored by the organization, to build support for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that he co-sponsored with Sen. Edward Kennedy.