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Vote drives defended, despite fake names

Mickey Mouse tried to register to vote in Florida this summer, but Orange County elections officials rejected his application, which had an ACORN stamp on it.

Mickey Mouse tried to register to vote in Florida this summer, but Orange County elections officials rejected his application, which had an ACORN stamp on it.

Mickey Mouse tried to register to vote in Florida this summer.

Orange County elections officials rejected his application, which was stamped with the logo of the nonprofit group ACORN.

Tow truck driver Newton Bell did register to vote in Orange County this summer. In the hands of ACORN, his paperwork went through without a hitch.

Two cases, two outcomes, each with a connection to ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

Nationwide, ACORN is a favorite GOP target for allegations of voter registration fraud this year.

That's not new. Similar complaints followed the 2004 elections. A criminal investigation in Florida found no evidence of fraud. ACORN even has a cameo role in the scandal over the 2006 firings of several U.S. attorneys by the Bush Justice Department.

Under attack again, ACORN leaders defend their work. Often, they say, things are as not simple as they're portrayed.

Take Mickey Mouse.

Yes, that's their logo. But they say their workers routinely scanned all suspicious applications.

"We don't think this card came through our system," said Brian Kettenring, ACORN's head organizer in Florida.

With more than 450,000 member families nationwide — 14,000 in Florida — ACORN is a grass roots advocacy group focused on health care, wages, affordable housing and foreclosure.

Bell, the truck driver, certainly, is more representative of ACORN's work in Florida than the cartoon mouse is.

This year, ACORN signed up 1.3-million voters nationwide and about 152,000 in Florida, mostly in Orange, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. ACORN estimates it flagged 2 percent of its Florida registrations as problematic because they were incomplete, duplicates or just plain bogus.

That's enough to give headaches to election officials and to provide ammunition to Republican activists.

Brevard County elections officials have turned over 23 suspect registrations from ACORN to prosecutors. The state Division of Elections has received two ACORN-related complaints, in Orange and Broward counties.

ACORN wasn't active in the Tampa Bay area. Last week, however, Pinellas County elections officials gave local prosecutors 35 questionable registrations from another group, Work for Progress.

The GOP accuses ACORN of registration fraud all over the country. In Las Vegas, authorities said the group's petitions included the names of the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys.

"This is part of a widespread and systemic effort … to undermine the election process," says Republican National Committee chief counsel Sean Cairncross, who describes ACORN as a "quasicriminal organization."

No, Kettenring said, it's more like Wal-Mart.

"Some percentage of Wal-Mart workers try to get paid without doing their work or steal from their employer," he said.

Some ACORN workers, he said, have simply made up names.

Maybe, elections officials say, but it's still annoying.

"We did experience a significant amount of problems, enough that we did contact the group to express some of our frustration with their work," said Linda Tanko, Orange County's senior deputy supervisor for voter services.

ACORN's problems included applications with unreadable handwriting, missing information, signatures that didn't match those on file, altered dates of birth or Social Security numbers, applications for people already registered to vote and names that appeared repeatedly, often with different addresses.

ACORN said it terminates canvassers who forge applications. In Broward County, it fired one worker after he turned in applications with similar handwriting and brought the matter to the attention of the Supervisor of Elections Office.

Pay to gather registrations started at $8 an hour, and the goal was 20 signups per day. The organization did not pay by the signature or pay bonuses for volume. The organization also tried to follow up on each registration, calling the person listed to confirm that the form is accurate.

In most states, ACORN must turn in every form that is filled out. "We must turn in every voter registration card by Florida law, even Mickey Mouse," Kettenring said.

Well, not yet, said Jennifer Krell Davis, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State.

Florida does have a law saying third-party voter registration groups must turn in every form without regard to things like party affiliation, race, ethnicity or gender. So far, however, the state has not written the rules to implement it.

In Florida, ACORN is best known for its 2004 effort to lead a petition drive to raise the minimum wage. The FDLE looked into voter fraud allegations then and found no laws were broken.

ACORN also played a role in the firing of one of nine U.S. attorneys dismissed in 2006.

In New Mexico, U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was fired "because of complaints by elected officials who had a political interest in the outcome" of, among other things, a Republican voter fraud complaint against ACORN, according to an internal Justice Department report last month.

This year, 39 members of the House of Representatives have asked Attorney General Michael Mukasey to investigate ACORN.

One of those, Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, also has written to supervisor of elections offices in Central Florida seeking "all ACORN-related registration of voters within the last two years."

Republicans also accuse Sen. Barack Obama of trying to distance himself from ACORN, which he represented in a federal lawsuit in 1995.

ACORN's political action committee has endorsed Obama, but the group says its voter registration efforts are nonpartisan.

And the McCain campaign's complaints now are puzzling, ACORN says, because two years ago McCain was the keynote speaker at an immigration reform rally ACORN co-sponsored in Miami. "In 2006," Kettenring said, "we were working together."

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@sptimes.com or (813)269-5311.

Vote drives defended, despite fake names 10/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 4:45pm]

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