The Rise and Fall of ACORN

Class: Political Media and Communication

Date: November 10, 2010

On November 2nd, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy following more than two years of great success and great failure. ACORN had worked for over 40 years with low- and moderate-income families to build and empower communities around the country and the world. Multiple internal and external factors led ACORN to falter and ultimately collapse. In some ways, the organization was brought down by its own mission statement, which states “ACORN’s low- to moderate-income members act as leaders, spokespeople, and decision-makers within the organization” (ACORN). A lack of management and leadership undermined ACORN’s credibility, while forces outside the organization sought to demonize and destroy ACORN entirely. By repeating misleading information and perpetuating lies, antagonists of the organization, a group that was largely Republican, were able to bring an organization that helped a disenfranchised and largely Democratic constituency to the brink. The collapse of ACORN was due primarily to smears and lies by right-wing politicians and commentators, then disseminated by the media without any fact checking or correction.

ACORN was formed in Little Rock, Arkansas by community organizer Wade Rathke in 1970. In more than 40 years, ACORN spread to 75 cities across 40 states. It has helped low-income families get approved for home loans, has worked to eliminated predatory financial practices and has fought for and won minimum wage increases. But ACORN is probably best known for its work registering voters. During the 2008 campaign, ACORN claims to have registered 1.3 million voters. But behind the scenes, scores of problems within the organization threatened to undermine the organizations mission.

As ACORN states in their mission statement, low- to moderate-income members are employed by the organization. In many cases, the boards of many ACORN affiliates were entirely made up of members of the community. While it increases involvement and allows the organization to be uniquely aware of the problems facing the community, many of the boards lacked members with expertise in accounting, finance and legal issues (Gose). ACORN itself had admitted it hadn’t devoted enough resources to management, a problem chief executive Bertha Lewis was working on since taking over the head job in 2008 (Atlas).

Lewis herself took over the top position following a scandal that forced founder Rathke to give up the day-to-day supervision of the U.S. organization. In 2008, it came to light that Rathke’s brother and former ACORN director Dale Rathke had embezzled almost $1-million ten years earlier. When discovered, the Rathke family agreed to pay back the money, but management did not report the incident to members of the board or law enforcement. The incident was treated as an internal matter and Dale Rathke was actually kept as a paid employee of the organization until news of the scandal broke (Suddath). The embezzlement and subsequent cover-up both did little to help ACORN’s reputation.

While leadership was making a mess of things at the top, the day-to-day operation relied on part-time employees being paid $8 an hour with minimal training to register voters. In 2008, more than 13,000 part-time employees were hired in 21 states to register voters in poor and minority neighborhoods. In many cases, this helped the efforts. Members of the community could approach those with similar circumstances and explain why voting was important for their family and their community. The 1.3 million registration cards submitted by ACORN were huge, one of the organizations biggest successes. But voter registration problems were the primary source of consternation for ACORN and a big part of what tarnished the name of the organization (Hastings).

During the 2008 campaign, ACORN had to deal with a smattering of incidents, which ended up becoming much bigger stories in the media than the incidents warranted. Many of these were used as examples of widespread problems throughout to organization, rather than isolated incidents. For instance, Las Vegas field director, Christopher Edwards, was arrested and later indicted along with another ACORN employee for creating an incentive program based on the number of registration. In Nevada, it is illegal to place monetary incentives on voter registration, because it encourages fraudulent submissions. National ACORN representatives said the program violated their policy and both employees were fired (Friess). There are similar stories in other cities. But it was fraudulent cards that really created headlines.

The registration cards can be tagged as fraudulent for a number of reasons, including duplicate or incomplete forms, and falsified forms where cartoon characters or celebrity names are submitted. ACORN never denied this happened. ACORN spokesman Brian Kettenring blamed many of the sham cards on “cheating and lazy employees trying to make a buck for doing nothing” (Hastings). While ACORN has made clear that employees are paid by the hour and not by the number of forms collected, it acknowledges that 829 employees were fired for job related problems, including falsifying forms (Falcone and Moss). During the campaign, the Republican party latched on to these incidents as evidence of pervasive voter fraud committed by ACORN and were able to convince the American public that this was how ACORN and the Democratic party were going to steal the election. The Republicans were able to frame the controversy in such a way that ACORN was unable to overcome the attacks.

The problem with the voter fraud accusation was two-fold. During their voter registration drives there were issues with voter registration fraud. As stated above, voter registration fraud has to do with fake registration forms being submitted, but fake registration forms do not lead to fake votes. A form may be submitted on Mickey Mouse’s behalf, but on Election Day, Mickey Mouse is not going to show up to the polls. In fact, Mickey Mouse is not even going to be on the voter rolls, because registration like these are flagged as fraudulent and thrown out. But not by ACORN. This is because ACORN is required by law in most states to submit them in an effort to prevent tampering (Hayes). And ACORN contended that they conduct quality control reviews of the forms collected and in many cases flag those they believe to be fraudulent prior to submitting them to local election officials (Hastings).

The real problem lies with vocabulary. Voter registration fraud was equated with voter fraud, an entirely different beast. Voter fraud happens when a person votes using a fake ID, votes twice or when a person is paid to vote a certain way (Hayes). Voter fraud, actually buying elections, compromising the integrity of the U.S. electoral system, would be a serious problem, but according to a 2007 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law actual voter fraud is rare. The study found that “most problems were caused by things like technological glitches, clerical errors or mistakes made by voters and by election officials” (Hastings). Multiple studies have come to similar conclusions.

But that fact was ignored as the Republican Party won the framing war. In the final debate of the 2008 presidential campaign Senator John McCain raised the threat of ACORN, saying that the organization is “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” The Republican Party developed a vernacular when discussing ACORN’s efforts to register voters.  Throughout the campaign, threats that then-Senator Barack Obama was going to “steal” the election were common. In fact, a year after President Obama’s decisive victory on Novembe 4th, a poll by Public Policy Polling asked voters if they thought Obama had won the election legitimately or if “ACORN stole it for him.” While shocking that the same vocabulary would still be used a year later, and frankly, that the question would be worded in that way to begin with, the real bombshell was that 26% of respondents blamed it on ACORN. Breaking the numbers down further, 52% of Republicans answered that they believed ACORN stole the election.

In addition to spreading false information about voter fraud, the McCain campaign went so far as to claim that ACORN had caused the housing crisis. In an advertisement, the McCain campaign accused ACORN of “bullying banks” and said the organization “forced banks to issue risky home loans” (“ACORN Accusations”). In reality, ACORN had been very involved with efforts to prevent exploitive lending practices. Rather than using legislation like the Community Reinvestment Act to lay “a foundation for a house of cards built on subprime loans,” like a Wall Street Journal editorial alleged, ACORN used CRA to help end racial discrimination in lending. And while the housing crisis was taking shape, ACORN worked with its allies to fight against predatory lending and warned with prospective homeowners about risky situations (Atlas and Dreier).

During the campaign, ACORN became a dirty word. Rather than defend the good work the organization was doing, Democratic politicians distanced themselves from the group, even as they were benefiting from ACORN’s work. Obama was a victim of the ACORN attacks. The McCain campaign pointed fingers at his opponent, saying Obama had not adequately explained his connection to ACORN. In the final debate, after accusing ACORN of destroying democracy, McCain repeated this claim, saying the American people would “make a judgment” when all the details about Obama’s involvement with the group came out. Obama had worked with ACORN in the past, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, to represent the organization in a lawsuit against the state of Illinois regarding a voter registration law. In the debate, Obama explained his involvement as such, but allowed the accusation that ACORN was destroying America to go unanswered. Community organizing became a slur. Without the support from politicians, ACORN was forced to defend itself, but lacked the infrastructure to do so.

That is not to say the organization did not try to defend itself, but ACORN could not overcome the face-value transmission of the lies and misleading information in the media. In an article published a year following the Presidential election, John Atlas and Peter Dreier questioned how the American people could believe that ACORN stole he election.

The answer is a tale not only of how the Republican Party and conservative news media framed Acorn but also of how most mainstream journalism organizations were negligent by repeating rather than fact-checking the allegations.

A study of the coverage of voter fraud allegations against ACORN showed that 80.3% of print and broadcast stories failed to mention that the organization itself was reporting voter registration irregularities. Following the release of the McCain campaign ad on ACORN, the website FactCheck.org broke down the commercial, pointing out the many inaccuracies. But FactCheck.org, ACORN and other organizations trying to fight back could not silence the constant barrage of lies being slung from the right-wing media and repeated in the mainstream media. And in many cases the lies were vitriolic and filled with hate. “Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators portrayed ACORN as militant, election stealing socialists and Obama’s anti-capitalist ‘crackhead’ cronies ready for another round of free for all foreclosures. They accused ACORN members being a part of a criminal enterprise and illegally registering homeless voters” (Natividad).

Following the 2008 campaign, ACORN found themselves constantly on the defensive and when two Republican activists targeted ACORN and released heavily edited video alleging that ACORN employees gave advice on how to hide criminal activities. In September 2009, James O’Keefe III and Hannah Giles walked into ACORN offices around the country dressed as a pimp and a prostitute apparently seeking advice on how to set up a prostitution ring and smuggle underage girls into the country. The hidden-camera video was edited and released on the Internet, immediately going viral and causing wall-to-wall coverage of the scandal on Fox News. The videos made their way into the mainstream media coverage, reporting the controversy, again, at face value (Atlas and Dreier). The ACORN employees were fired and Bertha Lewis said, “I cannot and I will not defend the actions of the workers depicted in the video” (Shane). But key elements of this story were left out. For instance, some ACORN offices refused to help and no paperwork was filled out on the pair’s behalf. The state attorney general, Jerry Brown, conducted a review of the unedited tapes in California. In his report, released seven months after the initial release of the tapes, Brown found that the tapes actually showed some employees catching on to the scheme, soliciting additional information, which the subsequently reported to the police (Lin).

Unfortunately, the vindication for ACORN was too little, too late. Following the release of the videos, politicians from both sides of the aisle distanced themselves as much as possible from the organization. A bill was introduced in both chambers to de-fund the organization, which worked with many government offices including the IRS, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Census Bureau. Only six Democratic senators voted against the bill. While ACORN received limited support from the federal government, much of their budget came from charitable donations and grants, many of which dried up in light of the scandal (Eisenberg).

After constant attacks and scandals, ACORN finally folded this year. On the ACORN website, CEO Lewis explained that the organization was filing for bankruptcy. “The ongoing political onslaught caused irreparable harm. […] The pressure and cost of defending ourselves in multiple investigations as a result of the falsified videos has eroded our organization.” Employees were laid off and offices were closed. Some offices are changing their name and refocusing their work, distancing themselves from the ACORN name in order to continue working with the community. The success of these offices remains to be seen.

But why was ACORN besieged so venomously by the right-wing? ACORN was helping low-income and minority communities find a voice. For years, ACORN had fought corporations and conservative government policies that sought to disenfranchise poor communities. Voter suppression techniques have been part of Republican election strategies. Jim Crow laws of the 1960s to voter ID requirements in the books in many states today make it difficult for a mainly Democratic constituency to vote. ACORN was an organization that was making it easy for that community to register to vote (Hayes). In 2008, ACORN announced that they had collected 1.3 million registrations. Even with duplicate and fake forms submitted, at least 450,000 of those were estimated to be new voters. In a close election, 450,000 can make quite a difference (Falcone and Moss).

In the end, the collapse of ACORN causes great concern for the future of non-profit organizations working with low- and moderate-income communities nationwide. ACORN worked for over forty years to help make things better for communities. They were brought to their knees in less than two years. Especially during times of great need, community organizations are critically important. But in an increasing polarized political environment “any group that challenges big business and conservative politicians” is under threat (Atlas and Dreier). ACORN was plagued by internal problems. Poor management and lack of proper training allowed for fraudulent practices to happen, but the constant stream of attacks and the inability to properly defend itself, ACORN had no chance.

Works Cited

“ACORN Accusations.” FactCheck.org. 18 Oct. 2008. Web. 10 Nov. 2010. <http://www.factcheck.org/elections-2008/acorn_accusations.html&gt;.

Atlas, John, and Peter Dreier. “The Acorn Scandal Offers Key Lessons to All Charities.” Chronicle of Philanthropy 22.4 (2009). Print.

“Complete Final Debate Transcript: John McCain and Barack Obama.” Los Angeles Times. 15 Oct. 2008. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

Dreier, Peter, and John Atlas. “The GOP’s Blame-ACORN Game.” The Nation. 22 Oct. 2008. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Eisenberg, Pablo. “In Their Rush to Abandon Acorn, Many Are Ignoring Its Accomplishments.” Chronicle of Philanthropy 22.2 (2009). Print.

Epps, Garrett. “The Voter ID Fraud.” The Nation. 10 Jan. 2008. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Falcone, Michael, and Michael Moss. “Group’s Tally of New Voters Was Vastly Overstated.” New York Times. 23 Oct. 2008. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Friess, Steve. “Acorn Charged in Voter Registration Fraud Case in Nevada.” New York Times. 5 May 2009. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Gose, Ben. “As a 40-Year-Old Organization Topples, Its Seeds Take Root.” Chronicle of Philanthropy 22.10 (2010). Print.

Grim, Ryan. “Dems Re-Defund ACORN In Latest Bill.” Huffington Post. 25 Sept. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

Hastings, Deborah. “ACORN Controversy: Voter Fraud or Mudslinging?” USA Today. 18 Oct. 2008. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Hayes, Christopher. “How I Committed Voter Fraud.” The Nation. 19 Oct. 2008. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Hayes, Christopher. “Obama’s Voter-registration Drive.” The Nation 1 Sept. 2008. Web. 8 Nov. 2010. <http://www.thenation.com/article/obamas-voter-registration-drive&gt;.

Lewis, Bertha. “The End of an Era: Files Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.” ACORN. 2 Nov. 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2010. <http://www.acorn.org/node/712&gt;.

Lin, Judy. “Jerry Brown: No Criminality Found On ACORN Tapes.” Huffington Post. 1 Apr. 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

“Mission Statement.” ACORN. Web. 10 Nov. 2010. <http://www.acorn.org/about/mission&gt;.

Natividad, Ivan. “ACORN Accusations: How the Right Got It Wrong.” The Nation. 28 Nov. 2008. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Public Policy Polling. Mixed Reviews for Obama. Raleigh, NC. 2009. Print.

Shane, Scott. “Conservatives Draw Blood From Acorn.” New York Times. 15 Sept. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

Strom, Stephanie. “Acorn Report Raises Issues of Legality.” New York Times. 22 Oct. 2008. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Strom, Stephanie. “On Obama, Acorn and Voter Registration.” New York Times. 11 Oct. 2008. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Suddath, Claire. “A BRIEF HISTORY OF ACORN.” Time. 14 Oct. 2008. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

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