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If Mickey Mouse shows up at the polls in a couple of weeks, John McCain might have cause for the alarm he showed over alleged voter fraud during Wednesday's debate. If Minnie and Goofy also turn up with state-sponsored photo ID, then the Justice Department and the FBI will need to turn their attention away from terrorism, bank robberies and billion-dollar financial scams to investigate fake voters.

But it's quite unlikely that Mickey or Minnie or Goofy will be among the voters lined up on Nov. 4. So McCain's hysterical outburst over a group of activists - ACORN, he said, "may be destroying the fabric of democracy" - needs to be understood for what it is: a distraction. The Republican nominee is once again using fear as a tactic to try to win votes.

In the waning days of the presidential campaign, Republicans have made ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, their bete noire. Known for its activism on behalf of the poor, ACORN has long been an object of Republican disdain.

During this election season, ACORN has conducted a registration campaign, hiring workers to sign up new voters. Some workers have decided to fake it, filling in names such as "Mickey Mouse" instead of those of eligible voters. (According to ACORN's leaders, they discovered the fake names and notified authorities. They've also fired workers caught engaged in illegal activities.)

Still, the fake registrations have driven Republicans around the bend. They've been exaggerating voter fraud for decades, and the prospect of losing the Oval Office and congressional seats has them scurrying for excuses. If Democrats win big in this cycle, look for more GOP nuttiness about ACORN and voter fraud.

Fake voters are a myth, a convenient cover for those who really don't believe in the universal franchise. (ACORN has been accused of fraudulent registrations; for actual voter fraud to occur, persons with those fake names would have to show up to cast ballots.) There is no evidence of people coming to the polls using false names and fraudulent IDs.

Ever since the civil rights movement inspired large numbers of black and brown Americans to exercise their right to vote, Republicans have been engaged in efforts to keep them away from the ballot box. Way back in the 1960s, Arizona Republican William Rehnquist - then a GOP activist, later the chief justice of the United States - was accused of intimidating Latinos to try to keep them away from the polls. Many Republicans fought the "motor voter" laws, passed during the '90s, that allowed state driver's license bureaus to also register voters. Ease of access encourages less-affluent Americans to vote, and Republicans fear that too many Democratic-leaning voters are in that demographic group.

The GOP might have chosen to appeal to the interests of black and brown voters to lure them into its coalition. Instead, Republican strategists such as the late Lee Atwater perfected the so-called Southern strategy, using racially charged innuendo to appeal to white voters resentful of the civil rights movement. That has kept black voters alienated from the Republican Party. George W. Bush tried to appeal to Latinos with an enlightened push for broad immigration reform, but the narrow-minded Republican base revolted against the measure. That left Latino voters disaffected. With America growing browner, the base of the Republican Party will continue to dwindle.

As the GOP panics over its shrinking base, the smooth cover it has used to justify voter suppression has begun to crumble, revealing its ugly tactics for all to see. Just last week, Georgia Republican Eric Johnson, a state legislator, threatened to end early voting, calling it a "mistake."

Georgia Republicans used to champion early voting because it was convenient for well-educated voters, especially in the GOP-leaning suburbs. But this year, black Georgians have accounted for nearly 40 percent of the early votes, a sign of the excitement over Barack Obama's historic candidacy. Now, Johnson sees early voting as "a 30-day period of time when, if your goal is to undermine democracy, you've got 30 days to do it instead of one."

Don't be fooled. Neither McCain nor Johnson is concerned about democracy. They're worried about Democrats.

©Atlanta Journal-Constitution