Updated 8:55 p.m.
By Mary Pat Flaherty
The Nevada office of ACORN had planned a potluck dinner at its Las Vegas office Tuesday night to celebrate the 80,000 newly registered voters its staff had signed up in Clark County as part of its work with low-income communities nationwide.
Instead, their office was raided Tuesday morning by agents of the Nevada Secretary of State and Attorney General who alleged in an application for a search warrant that ACORN had hired 59 felons through a work release program as canvassers and submitted nearly 300 apparently fraudulent voter registration cards as part of the drive.
The submitted voter cards included addresses and names that do not exist in Nevada, duplicate registrations, names culled from telephone books and names of Dallas Cowboys players, an investigator for the Secretary of State alleged in his affidavit for a search warrant.
One ex-employee of ACORN reached by the state investigator told him she began making up names for her forms on days when it was too hot to work outside. ACORN canvassers are paid by the hour. Ex-employees also said they were expected to collect 20 complete forms a shift or risk probation and termination, the investigator said in his affidavit.
The search drove ACORN and its critics to exchange charges of political maneuvering in a battleground state that voted Republican in the 2004 presidential election but is considered in play for November. Mail-in voter registration closed Saturday in Nevada.
Agents removed 20 boxes of documents and eight computer hard drives from the ACORN office in “an ongoing investigation,” said Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat. “Now we begin the task of sifting through the material that was seized to determine how widespread any fraud might be.”
No arrests were made yesterday and no ACORN staff were in the office during the raid.
ACORN officials said they were stunned by the search because they had unilaterally identified and flagged suspicious voter registration cards to the county elections board starting in July and had been cooperating with authorities to cull bad information and fire workers who collected that information, said Brian Mellor, senior counsel for Project Vote.
Project Vote relies on staff from ACORN, which stands for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, to do field level voter drives.
ACORN’s internal checks, Mellor said, included tracking forms assigned to canvassers using serial numbers and worker sign-offs on each form and following up with listed voters by phone to verify they had taken part in the registration drive. The search warrant mentions those procedures.
That cooperation and meetings with state officials also are mentioned in the search affidavit, as is a subpoena from the state that was delivered to ACORN in September asking the group to resubmit information on several employees it had previously turned over to county elections officials. The forms were resubmitted, Mellor said.
“The raid was a stunt designed perhaps to make them look tough on voter fraud,” said Matthew Henderson, the southwest regional director for ACORN. “We don’t think fraud is a rampant problem. This was a politically motivated stunt, that is all there is to it because those new voters can reshape the electorate of Nevada.”
Henderson said many voters registered through ACORN are “working people and people of color and there may be corners of the political world where a high injection of new voters like those is unsettling some.”
The state is one of several viewed as a battleground. The Secretary of State and Attorney General are Democrats.
“If this were a stunt I would have put Ross (Miller) out there with a shotgun like Buford Pussey,” said Miller’s spokesman, Bob Walsh. “I’ll grant them their cooperation, though it is grossly dishonest not to bring up the felons in their official statements they released.”
But, said Walsh, “at the end of the day, it is our job, not ACORN’s, to enforce election law and that is why we acted.”
In July, the two Nevada state agencies involved in the raid, along with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office for Nevada, formed a task force to target voter registration and election fraud and complaints over voter registration practices, potential voter fraud, and enforcement of laws regarding voter intimidation. The federal agents were not part of Tuesday’s search, Walsh said.
Registration drives conducted by ACORN in several states are under scrutiny by local elections officials for the accuracy of cards gathered by its workers.
Mellor said that problems with duplicate registrations — for people already registered who sign on during a drive — have been a problem that ACORN is working to eliminate because those cards burden local elections boards who must process them. He also noted that the group has worked with local authorities in St. Louis and Kansas City in the past on investigations. But the Nevada search, he said, “is the first raid I can recall.”
ACORN has been the object of heated denunciations from the Republican National Committee and the McCain campaign, which contend the group is attempting to overwhelm election officials with new registrations that are carelessly gathered and would enable unqualified voters to get on the rolls.
“It is very difficult to ascribe any other motive to the activities of ACORN other than to swamp the system with registrations cards” that range from illegible to being drawn from names from telephone listings or other public directories, said RNC Chief Counsel Sean Cairncross. Cairncross spoke Tuesday during a telephone press conference on another ACORN voter drive in northwest Indiana that local news accounts report is under review by elections officers.
The ACORN drives, he said, “point to a lack of control in this organization” and “a willingness to go out and do this relentlessly.”
The McCain and Obama camps have been trading blasts and Internet alerts over Republican charges that ACORN has been closely linked to Barack Obama for years, a contention the Obama campaign denies.