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Why the Media Can't See the Trees for the ACORNs

Glenn W. Smith

John McCain and other Republicans making criminal allegations against the community-organizing group ACORN know exactly what they're doing. They're using alarmist allegations of "voter fraud" to fire up their conservative base and suppress the votes of some citizens who may, out of fear, stay away from the polls.

They exploit lingering unease among the poor and minorities who, with some justification, believe themselves to suffer disproportionately from unbalanced wheels of justice in America. These innocents know they don't have to commit crimes to be accused of crimes. Better to stay away from the places where the accusations might be leveled. Like the polls.

The allegations can also help cover up actual election fraud undertaken on behalf of McCain. This is the tactic Karl Rove learned so well from his right-wing predecessors: accuse your opponent of your own unethical or illegal acts.

These are a tried and true -- and grossly undemocratic -- tactics. And they are often accomplished with the complicity of the press.

I don't think there is a journalist covering the ACORN matter who doesn't know with a great deal of certainty that there is a substantial difference between fictionalized voter registration forms and real voter suppression and election fraud. The former are easily identified and never result in fraudulent voting. No one covering these stories believes that someone is going to show up at the polls this year and say, "My name is Mickey Mouse."

A few bad-apple, low-paid canvassers who take jobs registering voters will turn in fraudulent forms. In this case (as in most) it appears the bad registration forms were identified by ACORN and turned over to authorities in accordance with the law.

The media attention granted the right-wing attacks on ACORN begs the question: why does it seem to be a greater sin to be suspected of voter registration mistakes than to publicly engage in voter suppression efforts?

One answer to this question might be simple editorial bias. E&P's Greg Mitchell detailed the right's pioneer suppression efforts in his book, The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics.

As reported by Mitchell, in the 1934 race for governor of California, Republicans hatched perhaps the most sophisticated voter suppression scheme undertaken up to that time in America. Taking the shrewd advice of a former New York prosecutor, Eli Whitney Debevoise, opponents of Democrat Upton Sinclair leveled wild charges of voter registration fraud. A cooperative district attorney drew up a secret list of 200,000 allegedly illegal registrants.

The Los Angeles Times advanced the suppression campaign, writing on the front page that "it would be far better for a few honest persons to lose their votes than for a hundred thousand rogues to defeat by fraud the majority will of the people." The publicity, the conspirators knew, would frighten those who were afraid they just might be on that list. Rather than risk capture (for a vague crime they had no understanding of), they'd stay away from the polls.

Ultimately, the effort ended in some embarrassment when no actual voter registration fraud was uncovered and the state's Supreme Court tossed out the accusations. But not before the goal of the publicity was met.

There is some historical symmetry in the fact that in 1982, U.S. District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise, a distant cousin of El Debevoise, the suppression guru who hatched the California scheme, ordered the Republican National Committee to forever halt its voter intimidation and suppression campaigns. In the 1982 New Jersey gubernatorial contest, the RNC launched a sophisticated "voter caging" campaign. Letters were sent to voters. If they were returned for bad addresses, the GOP challenged the addressees' registration. It raised doubts among citizens about whether they were illegally registered.

A "Ballot Security Task Force," patrolled the polls, lurking beneath signs that read, "It is a crime to falsify a ballot or to violate election laws." The tactic is being used this year by state attorneys general and others. The RNC remains theoretically under Judge Devevoise's order.

When I covered politics for Texas newspapers in the 1980s, the voter intimidation efforts of the Right were well known. We covered some of them, but not with a lot of energy or insight. I'm afraid we took intimidation and suppression as just another part of the game.

But it's a fact that Karl Rove was the consultant to the incumbent Texas governor back then. So it shouldn't be a surprise that county voter registrars received a list of 29,000 alleged felons to purge from the rolls. That got some coverage when it turned out a Democratic candidate for the state house who had no criminal record was on the list. But it didn't stop the intimidation efforts. Signs reading "You Can Be Imprisoned" were posted at minority polling locations.

If media bias is not the answer to broad coverage of spurious registration fraud allegations, what is the answer?

I think it has something to do with our history. The right to vote has always been contested. In our early years, those without property couldn't vote. Neither could women, freed blacks, or slaves. It took 140 years for women to be granted the franchise. Exclusion is a tradition with deep roots in our cultural narratives and founding documents. Historically accustomed as we are to exclusion, maybe we don't judge it to be news.

Illegally crossing barriers to inclusion, however, is news. I guess.

Isn't it finally time for the media to drop the habit and turn its attention to anti-democratic voter suppression tactics they know are anti-democratic? Isn't it time they dropped their complicity in voter suppression schemes? The ACORN controversy would be a good place to start.

Glenn W. Smith is a Rockridge Institute Senior Fellow. He is also director of the Texas Progress Council, a research and message lab in Austin, Texas. He commutes between Austin and Berkeley. Smith is the author of The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction (2004, Wiley).

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