The 2008 presidential election may see the highest participation in U.S. history. Voter-registration organizations and local election boards have been overwhelmed by enthusiastic people eager to vote. But not everyone is happy about this blossoming of democracy.
ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, has become a lightning rod for the right wing. ACORN's Web site notes that "the electorate does not reflect the citizenry of the United States of America. It skews whiter, older, more educated and more affluent than the citizenry as a whole." Bertha Lewis, ACORN's lead organizer, told me: "We organize low- and moderate-income people, usually folks who are minorities-African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and working-class white people. And most of these folks have always been disenfranchised out of the electoral process. ... We've registered 1.3 million new voters across the country over an 18-month period of time. We had over 13,000 hard-working voter-registration workers. And we may have had a few bad apples, but I don't know any organization that didn't."
Barack Obama himself was questioned about ACORN's problematic registrations. He said: "Having run a voter-registration drive, I know how problems arise. This is typically a situation where ACORN probably paid people to get registrations, and these folks, not wanting to actually register people, because that's actually hard work, just went into a phone book or made up names and submitted false registrations to get paid. So there's been fraud perpetrated on probably ACORN, if they paid these individuals and they actually didn't do registrations. But this isn't a situation where there's actually people who are going to try to vote, because these are phony names."
ACORN has seen some clearly fraudulent registrations submitted, with names like "Mickey Mouse" turned in. ACORN says it reviews all the registration forms. However, it does not serve as the ultimate arbiter of which registrations are fraudulent. In fact, ACORN cannot legally throw away any voter-registration cards. It flags suspicious cards and submits them to the appropriate state election authority to make the judgment.
Republicans are increasingly alarmed at the shifting demographics of the United States. Minorities tend to vote Democratic, and the United States is slowly becoming a majority minority country-by 2050, whites will no longer represent a majority in the U.S. As right-wing commentator Patrick Buchanan lamented in 2004: "In 1960, when JFK defeated Nixon, America was a nation of 160 million, 90 percent white and 10 percent black, with a few million Hispanics and Asians sprinkled among us. We were one nation, one people. We worshiped the same God, spoke the same English language." Buchanan's xenophobia highlights a political reality: Immigration and mobilization of the urban poor are shifting the electorate to the Democrats, especially in key swing states like New Mexico, Colorado, Florida and Ohio.
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The federal Help America Vote Act was passed in 2002 in response to the electoral crisis of 2000. But it requires new voters to present identification at the polling place, which critics allege is a modern-day Jim Crow law. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (the son of the assassinated 1968 presidential candidate) said recently: "I have an ID, and most Americans have an ID. But one out of every 10 Americans don't have a government-issued ID, because they don't travel abroad, so they don't have passports, and they don't drive a car, so they don't have driver's licenses. The number rises to one in five when you're dealing with the African-American community." The online Michigan Messenger revealed that Michigan Republicans were planning to use a list of people with foreclosed homes to purge voter rolls. And a federal judge in Detroit has just ordered that 1,500 people be restored to the Michigan voter rolls, based on "voter caging"-purging people if mail to them is returned as undeliverable. The scandal around the firing of U.S. attorneys, which ultimately led to the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, was based largely on the refusal of the Republican prosecutors to pursue unfounded voter-fraud cases.
Citizen groups like Election Protection and Video the Vote are organizing to document and report problems at the polls on Nov. 4. It is more likely that they will see honest people denied the right to vote, purged from the voter rolls, than an attempt by Mickey Mouse to vote Obama.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.