Mickey Mouse Is Registered to Vote? Former ACORN Employees Speak Out on Accusations of Fraud
ACORN Admits to a Few Bad Apples but Says Claims of Voter Registration Fraud Have Been Exaggerated
By JIM AVILA and REYNOLDS HOLDING
Oct. 10, 2008
The law does not take voter-registration fraud lightly, and Tyaira Williams, a former canvasser for get-out-the-vote group ACORN, wears the electronic ankle bracelet to prove it.
"I'm on two years' probation and four months house arrest," said Williams Sunday as she sat with her three young children on the front steps of her St. Louis home. ACORN "didn't do no training. All they did was tell us to register people to vote."
The raid on the Las Vegas headquarters of ACORN earlier this month was not the first time the community group had attracted attention from state and federal law enforcement agencies. Williams, 23, was one of eight former ACORN employees who pleaded guilty to federal charges of creating bogus voter-registration forms in St. Louis just before the 2006 congressional elections. And she is one of the first employees to talk publicly, from the inside, about how some ACORN workers met their registration goals.
"People was using the phone books," she explained. "People was registering their kids, people was registering out of town people."
Williams said she did none of that. But she did fill out registration forms for other people, a crime that she said she committed because ACORN pressured its canvassers to work quickly and sign up 25 new voters a day.
"They didn't train us. They gave us cards and told us to go out and get people registered to vote," she said. "Whatever you have to do, get out here and register these people to vote. I don't care how you have to do, do it."
Officials at the ACORN office in St. Louis where Williams worked did not return phone calls requesting comment. But ACORN spokesman Lewis Goldberg told ABC News that "ACORN has spent $2.5 million -- or 2.5 percent of our total voter-registration costs -- more money than any other organization in the country, to develop the most stringent quality-control measures in the country."
"And the proof is in the pudding," he said. "Dozens of boards of elections around the country have cited ACORN for our quality efforts to register millions of new voters." The organization said it had registered more than 1.3 million voters in 21 states this election year alone. Many Republican Party operatives, though, have accused ACORN of being a voter-fraud machine, with its workers turning in registration cards for Mickey Mouse, a 7-year-old girl and the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys. GOP presidential candidate John McCain has joined the chorus, saying in the Oct. 15 presidential debate that the group's activities threatened to "destroy the fabric of American democracy."
ACORN has acknowledged that among its approximately 13,000 workers, at least a few inevitably turn out to be dishonest and create false registration forms. But the organization's leaders said they turn in crooked canvassers to the cops and try to alert election officials to suspicious registrations -- and in most jurisdictions are required to turn in all registration forms, valid or not.
In 2006, though, ACORN's St. Louis office apparently struggled with more than the usual amount of suspicious activity.
Cortez Cowan, an ACORN canvasser that year and one of Williams' co-workers, also pleaded guilty to voter registration fraud last June. He told ABC News that over the course of his two months at ACORN, he would "register people to vote who weren't real," and he would do it "most of the time."
"We had to," he said. "It was like, you have to come up with a certain amount of people a day, or you wouldn't get paid. They [the ACORN managers] just collected the paper. Everybody did it."
Is Cowan correct? Did everybody do it? Or were he and Williams and the six others who pleaded guilty in St. Louis just outliers looking for a quick buck?
"I didn't see ACORN encouraging this behavior," said Shawn Goulet, a St. Louis attorney who represented Cowan in the fraud case. "What I saw was not enough supervision, not enough direction and training of these people. If they thought it was a way to make some quick money and not be discovered, that information rolls downhill from those who did it before."
But Williams argues that, in her case, the problem went beyond a failure to train. "My thing is, ACORN told us we could fill out the top of the voter registration form: name, address, birthday and a change of address," she said. "I should not be in the predicament I am in, because I was told to do this." Whatever the facts of Williams' case, ACORN said the furor over a few bad workers is a smokescreen. And it is doubtful that anyone will show up at the polls on Election Day trying to vote as Mickey Mouse. In fact, U.S. Justice Department statistics show that since 2002, only 150 people were charged with actual voter fraud, and 115 were convicted, hardly enough to affect election results. According to ACORN spokesman Kevin Whelan, the real problem is that almost one-third of eligible voters are not registered. "The upshot of the attacks," he said at a Washington news conference last week, "is to try to cast aspersions on thousands of voters trying to case legitimate votes."