For the past year and a half, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now-the national community organizing group better known as ACORN-coordinated a massive voter registration campaign. The group enrolled 1.3 million mostly young, mostly poor voters around the country. But when some voter registration cards were reportedly found to be signed by Mickey Mouse and members of the Dallas Cowboys, among other suspicious names, John McCain and other Republicans accused ACORN of padding the rolls with thousands of phony voters. ACORN is now reportedly under investigation for "voter fraud" in at least 12 states, including the battleground state of Ohio and Nevada, where the organization's Las Vegas office was raided by state authorities earlier this month. ESSENCE.com asked Bertha Lewis, national chief organizer for ACORN, about these charges and why the organization says the accusations are unfounded and overblown.
ESSENCE.COM: ACORN's voter registration campaign turned in applications signed by phony names or multiple applications for the same person. How did this happen?
BERTHA LEWIS: I think it's important for people to know exactly what is happening. We do massive voter registration to low- and moderate-income folks. The Right Wing and Republicans, specifically, have been coming for us since the 2000 and 2004 elections. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sent U.S. attorneys after us to investigate and try to find a prosecutable action. In 2006, the reason he stepped down is that he fired eight attorneys because they kept coming back to him saying, "There's no evidence; ACORN is clean." They constantly tried to come after us and attack us, and not once anywhere has it been proven that we systematically engage in this activity.
[Editor's Note: Gonzales resigned as attorney general in 2007 amid controversy over his handling of the firings of several U.S. attorneys, which members of Congress alleged were politically motivated. He also faced allegations that he had lied to Congress under oath.]
ESSENCE.COM: Okay, but how do you explain these latest charges?
LEWIS: All we have are unfounded allegations and exaggerations. We find it peculiar that two weeks before the election, all of a sudden they find a few thousand suspicious cards. This was an 18-month effort by 13,000 workers. So naturally, less than 1 percent of our cards may be suspicious. But all of this so-called evidence they have against us-we're the ones that said, "Look at these cards and investigate." We flagged any suspicious cards because when you do voter registration you have to turn in every card, even if it has Mickey Mouse on it. We have to turn it in. We're the ones that fired workers for turning in suspicious cards. We believe this is really about the Republicans' attempt, once again, to suppress the vote. We believe the reason behind it is because we've registered 100 percent low- and moderate-income people. Seventy percent of those folks are Black and Brown and half of them are under the age of 30. So at the very least, you will have over a million new Black and Brown lower- and moderate-income young voters coming out to the polls. They historically have been disenfranchised, and now you have this enormous turnout, and most of them arguably are Democratic.
ESSENCE.COM: How did the fraudulent registration cards come about? Are you saying they were all accidental?
LEWIS: For those who are actually serving time right now, they have said on television and in the press, "Hey, I wanted to get paid. Why should I stand in the hot sun, why should I stand in the freezing cold, why should I walk block after block? I can just sit down, make up these names, and get paid." They've confessed to this. So if anyone has been defrauded, it's ACORN. We had 13,000 workers for over 18 months. We know a couple bad apples may defraud us. We were paying them by the hour; they came back with suspicious cards just to get a paycheck. If we think they're doing this, we fire them immediately and turn in their personnel records to law enforcement. Every ACORN worker over the past eight years who's been convicted-guess who turned them in? ACORN did.
ESSENCE.COM: How might voter registration fraud lead to actual voter fraud?
LEWIS: What they're trying to put into people's minds is that Mickey Mouse and Tony Romo would actually show up to vote. Let me give you some real facts: Between 20002 and 2005, only 38 people were accused of attempting to vote under someone else's name. None of them had anything to do with ACORN. Your chances of being hit by lightning are greater than the chances of people actually doing a fraudulent vote.
ESSENCE.COM: Some Republicans have tied voter registration problems to Barack Obama, claiming that he once worked for ACORN. Isn't there a conflict of interest here that taints his campaign?
LEWIS: Let me go all the way back. ACORN is the largest grassroots community organization in the country. We are community organizers. As you know, Barack Obama was a community organizer. As a young attorney, he, along with a lot of other attorneys, represented a coalition of community organizations that were trying to make sure that the Justice Department enforced the motor voter law [also known as the National Voter Registration Act, which requires state governments to provide uniform voting registration opportunities at drivers' license registration centers, disability centers, schools, libraries, and mail-in registration]. The Department of Justice was actually his partner in that. Now, our ACORN Political Action Committee has endorsed Barack Obama. They are trying to say that because they (the Obama campaign) gave money to an organization called Citizens Service-which subcontracted with us to do nominal get-out-the-vote activities for the primaries-that somehow or another there's an evil connection.
ESSENCE.COM: You're talking about the $800,000 that the Obama campaign provided for Citizens Services?
LEWIS: The Obama campaign gave Citizens Services $800,000 to conduct get-out-the-vote activities in the primaries. Citizens Services hired a few of our organizers to work on a couple of weekends. They subcontracted with us and a number of other groups. We got a total of approximately $80,000 to do "get out the vote" for the primaries. The Republicans are trying to make it seem as though ACORN got all of this money, but it's not true. We never received a penny from the Obama campaign to do any voter registration. In fact, we've never received a penny directly from their campaign to even do voter work.
ESSENCE.COM: If the investigation continues into November 4, does that mean people who registered with ACORN may not get to vote?
LEWIS: Well, they're claiming that the organization is under investigation. Here's what we're encouraging everyone to do. If you have registered, especially with ACORN, contact your local board of elections and tell them your name, where you live, and that you registered to vote. Tell them you want to make sure that you are on the rolls to vote. You can also go to our Web site, Acorn.org, and contact us. We will make sure that attorneys and election specialists can help people make sure that they're on the rolls. We are confident that everything will be fine.
ESSENCE.COM: If Obama wins, are you prepared for accusation that you've helped him steal this election?
LEWIS: I think it will be a way of setting up doubt, and challenging the results by saying they're tainted. We've seen it happen before. But we have hundreds of chapters across the country, and ACORN members are going to be vigilant because we will make sure that low- and moderate-income folks aren't left out. So we are going to fight, whether it's in the courts, at the ballot box, or challenging regulations. We are geared up and prepared for the dirty tricks that the Republicans have perpetrated before. They might come up with some new ones, but we're going to be prepared.
- Red Carpet