The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the nation's largest grassroots network committed to social and economic justice, is once again in the hot seat. After accusations last fall that the group's massive voter registration drive was padded with thousands of phony names, this month nine former ACORN workers have been charged with falsifying registration forms. In Nevada and Pennsylvania, they stand accused of forging registration cards to meet an illegal quota of 20 registrations a day.
The group, a perennial rival for Republicans, has been criticized by the right as being underhanded con artists, practically making ACORN a poster child for a left-wing conspiracy to "steal" last year's election. ESSENCE.com talked to Bertha Lewis, chief organizer for ACORN, who maintains that the group has done nothing wrong. She dismisses the workers as a few bad apples who violated ACORN guidelines—and says Republicans are just trying to discredit their efforts to register Black and low-income voters.
ESSENCE.COM: The charges from both Nevada and Pennsylvania involve ACORN workers falsifying registration forms and enforcing a quota. What's your take on these allegations?
BERTHA LEWIS: Last fall, we had turned in every single person we suspected of fraud. We have been waiting and asking, "When are you going to prosecute these people?" In Nevada we fired several people, including one guy who had been running a crew [and thought he was being clever]. They were in Las Vegas, so he invented a game called "Blackjack," where he said, "You give me the 21st card; I'll give you $5." We fired him because you can't do that. We pay by the hour. We don't have a quota system. All of our literature says we pay by the hour, and that it's a crime to falsify cards. All of the so-called evidence is from people that we had already turned in, saying, "You need to prosecute these folks."
ESSENCE.COM: According to news reports, ACORN canvassers and directors have come forward to say that there was a daily quota of 20 registration cards.
LEWIS: I only know the one guy in Nevada that we fired who had a quota. I don't know of these other people you're talking about. A reporter will have an anonymous person making these claims, and then they write, "They're ACORN staff." I think that's shoddy journalism. It really is unfair to us for people not to check us out and then just say, "Some anonymous person said this."
ESSENCE.COM: A few former canvassers have gone on the record saying they were pressured to get 20 cards a day.
LEWIS: What else are they going to say? These people knew they were committing fraud, so their excuse is that they were under pressure to commit fraud. We didn't fire people for doing the best they could. We fired people because when we looked at their cards, clearly something was amiss. In this situation, it stands to reason that they would say, "Well, I was pressured."
ESSENCE.COM: Do you think the charges against ACORN may be damaging to President Obama?
LEWIS: The guy was a young lawyer in a big law firm. The law firm did pro bono work for a coalition of organizations that were pushing to make sure that the motor voter law was enforced. It was 20-some groups, and we happened to be one of them. There's no direct connection that Obama has to us. We don't have some ACORN phone in the White House. So I don't think attacks on us will hurt the President. I think the Republicans hope that it would. But when people actually examine the facts, the "guilt by association 20 years ago" thing, I think people will see it for what it is.
ESSENCE.COM: Last year, you claimed to have registered 1.3 million Americans to vote. How accurate is that number really, when so many cards were suspicious?
LEWIS: That's how much we turned in. It was 1.3 million. You'll find some duplicates; you'll find some people who had a change of address. We know that even if you lopped off 300,000, that still means that a million people voted that otherwise would not have.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you plan to do voter registration any differently next time?
LEWIS: No, and I don't think anyone in this country can. We did the biggest operation of anyone in this country. We employed over 13,000 people and, to date, maybe eight or nine people have been charged. We're not sloppy with our operation. We have zero tolerance. We cooperate with the authorities. I defy anyone to show me a perfect voter registration campaign where every card was perfect. It doesn't exist. The only thing that will make a difference on voter registration, and we are all for this, is if the government has universal registration for everyone. But until that day, we're going to protect our constituency. We're an organization that's 99 percent of color, and we're registering Black people and other people of color to vote. That's who's really being attacked here.