Republican John McCain took his criticism of community activist group ACORN to new heights, claiming in the final presidential debate that the organization "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 kept up the attack on Thursday, saying ACORN is being investigated for voter fraud "in every single battleground state" and demanding that Democrat Barack Obama detail his ties to the group.
McCain is correct that at least a handful of ACORN canvassers are currently being investigated across the country by local officials on suspicion of submitting false registration cards, some with names like "Mickey Mouse" or "Donald Duck."
But in alleging voter fraud, McCain goes too far. To commit fraud, a person would have to show up on Election Day with identification bearing the fake name.
Massive registration drive
The group, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, recently completed a massive registration drive in poor and working-class neighborhoods — which tend to vote Democratic — across 21 states, signing up 1.3 million new voters. 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, Florida, Missouri, Nevada and South Carolina.
ACORN, which advocates for the underprivileged, has said for days that its own quality-control workers first noticed problem registration cards, flagged them and submitted them to local election officials in every state that is now investigating them.
ACORN hires canvassers from disadvantaged communities, pays them $8 an hour and provides them with a day of training, according to the group's spokesman, Brian Kettenring. He said those who forged registration cards were lazy employees trying to earn money for doing no work and were fired.
Many states require that every collected registration card be submitted to election officials so that bogus cards or those with incomplete information are vetted by voting professionals, not the groups that collect them.
Looking for signs of national effort
On Thursday, a senior law enforcement official told The Associated Press that the FBI is investigating whether the organization helped foster voter registration fraud.
The law enforcement official said the agency was looking at results of local inquiries in several states, including a raid on ACORN's office in Las Vegas, for any evidence of a coordinated national effort — something Republicans have been clamoring for in the past few days. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Justice Department regulations forbid discussing ongoing investigations, particularly so close to an election.
An ACORN spokesman said the group has not been notified that it is being investigated.
McCain, in Wednesday night's debate, also sought to tie Obama to ACORN, saying he gave $832,000 to an ACORN "front outfit organization."
During this year's primary Obama's campaign hired a firm with ties to ACORN, for a get-out-the-vote effort. During Wednesday's debate, Obama said ACORN's latest registration drive "had nothing to do with us. We were not involved."
In addition, Obama and other lawyers in 1995 successfully represented ACORN in a lawsuit against the state of Illinois to gain implementation of the so-called "motor-voter" law, which made voter registration easier.