"You should see the hate mail we're getting," says Stephanie Porta, ACORN Orlando's head organizer, while sitting in the group's crowded and narrow East Colonial Drive offices. "One of them refers to ‘niggers.'"

The venom conservatives have directed toward the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now in the waning weeks of this presidential election has truly been something to behold. A recent John McCain ad tried to link Barack Obama to ACORN — he once represented them in a lawsuit in Illinois — and claimed "there are at least 11 investigations across the country involving thousands of potentially fraudulent ACORN forms." Conservatives pounced and asserted that those investigations were prima facie evidence of widespread and nefarious wrongdoing.

In fact, in an Oct. 14 interview with Orlando's WFTV Channel 9, McCain went so far as to compare Obama's relationship with the group to his relationship with 1960s radical William Ayers — and to suggest that if he loses Florida, it would be ACORN's fault.

"ACORN is tampering with America's most precious right," McCain said. (He forgot to mention that in 2006, McCain was the keynote speaker at a pro-immigration rally in Miami that was sponsored by, yes, ACORN.)

So far, ACORN's registration efforts have netted 1.3 million new voters nationwide — 68,000 alone from Central Florida — almost all of whom come from low-income, minority communities. Yet according to the group's increasingly vehement critics, this registration drive is built upon fraud.

The 38-year-old, officially nonpartisan ACORN is one of the nation's largest grass-roots advocates for empowering low-income communities through housing and voter registration effort. Because its efforts tend to turn out Democratic-leaning voters, ACORN has dueled with conservatives before, but never quite like this.

"We get attacked all the time, but this time our members are livid," Porta says. "They feel as if all their hard work is being discredited by a few people's irresponsible actions."

True or not, numerous instances of ACORN-related chicanery have popped up in the press. One of those is in Cleveland, where the New York Post reported that a 19-year-old named Freddie Johnson signed 72 voter registration forms after being bribed and pressured by ACORN canvassers. In Lake County, Ind., more than 2,000 voter registrations surfaced with false names — one creatively named after the sandwich chain Jimmy John's. In Nevada, state authorities raided the Las Vegas ACORN office after 300 fraudulent registration cards were turned in to the supervisor of elections' office.

In Orange County, Fla., supervisor of elections officials found 21 voter applications that ACORN had submitted with the same name. Senior deputy supervisor Linda Tanko couldn't give an exact number of fake registrations ACORN turned in, but said they were "a lot."

"We had a large number of applications turned in with signatures that didn't match, or slightly different Social Security numbers," she says. "But we deal with third-party registrants every election, and we know that there are always problems mixed in with their work, especially on an aggressive voter drive such as ACORN's."

ACORN attorney Brian Mellor says these cases are examples of employee fraud — not election fraud.

"Employees are defrauding ACORN," he says. "No one accuses Wal-Mart of consumer fraud `when an employee steals from the company`. The fact that it's happening in multiple locations is due to the fact that it was a huge registration drive. ACORN is the victim."

In most states, Florida included, third-party registrants like ACORN are required by law to turn in all of their voter-registration forms, even if they're clearly bogus. Mellor calls it a Catch-22 — ACORN has to turn in phony registrations, and those phony registrations in turn lead to investigations and accusations.

According to Porta, ACORN hires canvassers at $8 an hour to register new voters at such high-volume locations as bus stops and libraries. Those registrations are then turned in to another group of ACORN members, who are supposed to verify the applicants by calling them. Forms with phony names or wrong Social Security numbers are flagged and set aside, but under state law they have to be submitted anyway — it's the job of the supervisor of elections office to determine their authenticity.

Paul Griffin, co-chairman of ACORN's Pine Hills office, says he worked six-hour days, five days a week, just trying to verify voter forms. "When we encounter problems we deal with them responsibly," he says. "Canvassers are always separated from verifiers so things don't get messy, and we always report problems to higher management by flagging the cards."

Tanko suspects that the fraudulent registrations stem from workers trying to meet quotas. "There's a higher percentage of problems when there's a performance standard as a condition of employment," says Tanko. "People will put in some creative applications to get their numbers in. It would be best if they didn't pay their workers and just hired volunteers."

There is an important distinction to be made here: A fraudulent voter application does not equal a fraudulent vote. If you sign a fake name — say "Mickey Mouse," as happened here in Florida — on a voter registration form after being pressured by an ACORN canvasser, it doesn't impact actual voting unless Mickey Mouse shows up to vote on Election Day, which isn't likely to happen. So the number of voter registrants may end up inflated, but not the number of actual voters — and that's what really counts. Indeed, ACORN has never been charged with actual voter fraud.

But in an election where Republicans are on their heels, struggling for any possible advantage, don't expect little details like that to get in the way of a good story.

More by Adriana Ruiz


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