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Are voter fraud fears overblown?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 19, 2008

Scrutiny: Nevada secretary of state officials raided ACORN’s office in Las Vegas last week looking for evidence of voter registration fraud.

Jae C. Hong/AP

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Oakland, Calif.

Depending on whom you listen to, this election is either facing “the greatest fraud in voter history,” or a minor nuisance from lazy registration gatherers.

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The more alarming interpretation comes from Republican presidential candidate John McCain. He leveled the charge against ACORN, a national activist group that’s the source of faulty registrations in about a dozen states and the target of a government raid in Las Vegas. Citing unnamed sources, the Associated Press reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into the group.

But many elections experts consider Senator McCain’s assertion to be hyperbole. Fake voter registration applications, they say, tend to be an effort by individual low-wage workers to cheat on a day’s work, not cheat the vote on Election Day. Someone might register “Mickey Mouse,” but Mr. Mouse isn’t likely to show up to vote.

“It’s hyperbole because there’s no good evidence that voter registration fraud leads to election fraud that changes elections. And it’s irresponsible because it gins up worries that the election is going to be stolen,” says Richard L. Hasen, a professor specializing in election law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Research into voting fraud by Lorraine Minnite at Barnard College in New York has turned up no contemporary cases of an election thrown out or overturned due to fraudulent registration. She found only two prosecutions for people faking others’ registrations between 2002 and 2005, involving a total of 13 false applications.

The anti-ACORN rhetoric, she says, is on the verge of “complete distortion.”

Founded in 1970, the Louisiana-based Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now says it advocates for poor people. This election, some 13,000 ACORN workers have registered an unprecedented 1.3 million people.

“When you hire 13,000 employees, you are going to have some who won’t do the job,” says ACORN spokesman Charles Jackson. The “rogue workers” who submitted phony registrations were fired immediately, he adds. The faked registrations were sent to election officials – as required by the law in many locales – but filed separately and flagged.

ACORN says it flagged 80 percent of the registrations that raised officials’ eyebrows.

Neither Mr. Hasen nor Ms. Minnite find the reported problems to be disproportionate to the size of ACORN’s operation.

Others disagree, particularly many Republicans who see the scope of reported problems indicative of systemic fraud. “In my opinion, it is now becoming racketeering,” says James Lacy, a lawyer who served in the Reagan administration and now leads conservative causes in California. “That we see it now involving a multitude of states and a multitude of voters, I think at some level ACORN is becoming a criminal enterprise in its engagement of voter registration activities.”

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