WASHINGTON -- Less than three weeks before the November election, the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns are trading accusations of voter fraud and voter suppression and gearing up for possible court battles over the outcome.
A main focus of the controversy again Tuesday was the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a liberal group that says it has registered more than 1.3 million new voters this year. Representatives of GOP presidential nominee John McCain held a news conference in Washington to accuse it of a pattern of submitting fraudulent voter registrations.
Democratic nominee Barack Obama, who was in Ohio preparing for tonight's debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., told reporters that the dispute over ACORN was "one of these distractions that gets stirred up in the course of a campaign." He added, however, that the issue should not be used by Republicans "as an excuse for the kind of voter-suppression strategies and tactics that we've seen in the past."
ACORN has been at the heart of voter-registration fraud complaints in past campaigns.
More than two dozen former voter-registration workers for ACORN have been charged or convicted of submitting fraudulent registrations since 2004, court records show. Kevin Whelan, a spokesman for the group, didn't dispute that the group has submitted improper or duplicate voter registrations this year, but he said it fires any canvassers found to be submitting fake registrations and notifies election officials.
Voter-registration fraud is more common than voter fraud, say voting experts such as Thad Hall of the University of Utah. "The actual number of cases prosecuted relating to voter fraud are actually low," said Hall, who co-edited a book on voting fraud released in June.
In California, for example, there were 469 cases of fraudulent voter registration resolved from 1994 to 2003, compared with 253 cases of voting fraud, according to a study in the book from Michael Alvarez of the California Institute of Technology.
Having fake names or ineligible voters on the rolls "absolutely and definitely translates into fraudulent ballots cast," Republican election lawyer Thor Hearne said.
He cited the case of a man in Cleveland who cast an absentee ballot under the name of Darnell Nash. Jane Platten, director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, said Nash was one of several people registered by ACORN to vote using addresses of actual voters. He has been stricken from the voter rolls, and the elections board will consider disqualifying his ballot, she said.
Republicans point to other probes of the group's voter drive in states including Nevada, New Mexico and Connecticut. "There have been incredible amounts of registrations that have been improper that could very well result in improper voting," former Republican senator Warren Rudman of New Hampshire said at a briefing organized by the McCain campaign Tuesday.
Obama's campaign paid Citizens Services Inc., an ACORN affiliate, $832,000 this year for help identifying voters in the Democratic primaries, according to campaign-finance records complied by the non-partisan CQ MoneyLine. ACORN and CSI have gotten more than $375,000 this year from Democratic candidates and liberal political groups, including $200,000 from the Fund for America, founded by former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta.
It is not uncommon for campaigns to pay outside groups to help register voters.