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WASHINGTON, Oct 10 2008 (IPS) - The Nevada voter registration operation of a low-income advocacy organisation had its offices raided on Tuesday as part of an ongoing investigation by state authorities into whether the group is involved in systematic voter fraud.
The raid was carried out by the Nevada Secretary of State’s office in coordination with an investigation by a voter fraud task force. Some critics allege that it was a politically-motivated “stunt”, partly because the investigation and raid closely resemble similar efforts that resulted in the “Attorney-gate” scandal that has rocked the President George W. Bush administration and led to the resignation of then-U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzales.
The Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now (ACORN), which, according to its website, is the nation’s largest community-based organisation, runs Project Vote, a non-partisan, non-profit initiative to register low- and moderate-income people to vote.
ACORN claims to have registered 80,000 new voters this year in Clark County, Nevada, home to the state’s most populous city of Las Vegas.
Computers and boxes of files were seized as part of the raid, which was not in connection with an arrest warrant, but rather a search warrant as part of the ongoing investigation. Without their files and equipment, the Nevada operation of ACORN was effectively shut down with only 28 days until the Nov. 4 election.
A task force, comprised of the Nevada Secretary of State’s office and Attorney General, as well as the Justice Department’s U.S. Attorney for Nevada and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has been looking into complaints and allegations that ACORN has been involved in voter fraud in Nevada.
ACORN has denied that any fraudulent registrations were part of a systematic problem. The organisation released a statement on Wednesday detailing their internal procedure for dealing with suspicion that canvassers are turning in fraudulent registration applications, which includes flagging suspicious applications for election officials from the state.
The cooperation between ACORN and state officials led the executive director of Project Vote, Michael Slater, to call the authorities’ raid a “stunt” on the day that ACORN announced that it had registered 1.3 million voters nationally.
“For them to execute some sort of search warrant and flag or call attention to the media while we did that is nothing more than a stunt since we were already providing information about the problem and in fact flagged the problem for them and asked them to take it seriously,” Slater told Alternet.org, a progressive online news outlet.
Bob Walsh, spokesperson for the office of Secretary of State Ross Miller, which is leading the investigation, emphatically denied that the raid was a stunt.
“Stunt? Baloney!” Walsh told IPS. “I take personal offence to that because I’ve been in this business for 25 years or more and if I’m going to do a stunt, I can do a hell of a lot better job than that. If I had wanted to do a stunt there would have been videos of people bashing down doors and everything else.”
Walsh told IPS that the timing of the raid was based solely on the information that became available to the Secretary of State through investigators in the state attorney general’s office as part of the task force.
“[…T]he timing of the raid was based on nothing more than the information being right,” he said. “[Investigators and the secretary of state’s office] developed the information that they had and thought it was the appropriate time to go in and act on that information.”
Because the group registers low-income voters who largely tend to vote Democratic at the polls, ACORN has frequently been targeted by Republicans claiming that they participate in voter fraud by flooding states with registrations just ahead of deadlines when the states don’t have time to carefully screen potential voters.
It was ACORN, in fact, that was at the centre of the “Attorney-gate” scandal where the Bush administration was accused of the improper firing of eight U.S. attorneys for political reasons. U.S. attorneys are part of the Justice Department’s apparatus to pursue cases in federal courts throughout the nation.
One case in particular – that of New Mexico U.S. attorney David Iglesias – closely resembles the recent events in Nevada.
Just this month, the non-partisan U.S. Inspector General’s office, while prefacing its results as incomplete because of the refusal of several key Bush administration officials to cooperate, released a report finding that Iglesias was fired for not giving into pressure to pursue cases with partisan ends despite a lack of evidence.
“[…W]e believe the evidence we uncovered showed that Iglesias was removed because of complaints to the Department of Justice and the White House by New Mexico Republican members of Congress and party activists about Iglesias’s handling of voter fraud and public corruption cases,” said the Inspector General’s report.
The voter fraud case mentioned was an effort to pursue a case against ACORN in New Mexico, which Iglesias formed a task force to investigate and found no grounds for prosecution.
“When these allegations are made, they get front page treatment in major publications around the U.S.,” Scott Horton, an adjunct law faculty member at Columbia University who has closely followed voter fraud allegations, told IPS. “And when you get down into the facts, you discover the same thing every single time. There is no there there. There is no fraud. There’s no basis for the claims that are being made.”
“What’s the odds that they’re going to find that there’s any flaws in the registration process? I’d say just about zero,” he said.
Horton said that there is a pattern of Republicans being engaged in these allegations and that they are often particularly aimed at ACORN.
“They sort of whip themselves into this cappuccino froth all the time talking about ‘voter fraud, voter fraud, voter fraud’,” Horton told IPS. “And if they have an entity that they absolutely demonise and vilify all the time, it’s ACORN.”
But while the U.S. Attorney for Nevada, Gregory Brower, is a Republican, both Secretary of State Miller and Nevada’s Attorney General, Catherine Cortez Masto, are Democrats. But Horton explains that Democratic officials must also investigate these cases.
“If you’re a law enforcement official and someone comes to you and complains about these things, you can’t sweep them under the table or refuse to act,” he said. “You have to purport to carefully investigate them.”
In Nevada this year, the stakes are particularly high because the solidly Republican state has been turning Democratic in polls, which Horton said is “largely on the strength of new voter enrollments”.
In a close race, he said, the suppression of three to four percent of the Democratic vote could translate directly into a Republican margin of victory.
ACORN is paying canvassers to collect legitimate registrations in line with their mission, leading Horton to an unusual take on the allegations that ACORN is itself involved in fraud.
“Let’s just stop and think about this. Who was being defrauded? ACORN was being defrauded,” said Horton.
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