In a replay of a tactic used to help secure President George W. Bush’s second term, Republicans – aided by investigative agencies of the federal government – are making a campaign issue out of voter-registration forms with fake names like “Mickey Mouse.”

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a grassroots group that has registered hundreds of thousands of new voters, is again the target of these Republican attacks despite federal guidelines discouraging voter-fraud investigations right before elections.

Trying to salvage his campaign, John McCain has jumped into the ACORN case, too, citing it at the third presidential debate. He declared ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."

However, the investigations launched against ACORN – now including the reported involvement of the FBI – have raised other concerns, especially that Republicans are flogging this issue in an effort to stir up anger, to revive McCain’s campaign, and to intimidate new voters.

For its part, ACORN has insisted that its own quality control flagged many of the suspicious registration forms before they were submitted to state officials and that state laws often require outside registration groups to submit all forms regardless of obvious problems.

Independent studies also have shown that phony registrations rarely result in illegally cast ballots because there are so many other safeguards built into the system.

For instance, from October 2002 to September 2005, a total of 70 people were convicted for federal election related crimes, according to figures compiled by the New York Times last year. Only 18 of those were for ineligible voting.

In recent years, federal prosecutors reached similar conclusions despite pressure from the Bush administration to lodge “election fraud” charges against ACORN and other groups seen as bringing more Democratic voters into the democratic process.

Some of the Bush administration prosecutors who refused to seek these indictments were then fired in 2006 as part of a purge of nine U.S. Attorneys deemed not “loyal Bushies.”

This “prosecutor-gate” scandal led to the resignations of several senior White House and Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. President Bush then asserted broad executive privilege to block testimony by Karl Rove and other top White House officials.

Media Amnesia

Yet, in the intense press coverage of the current ACORN flap, the major U.S. news media mostly has avoided reference to the “prosecutor-gate” case. Instead, the press focus has been on anecdotes like Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo’s name showing up on one registration form.

The U.S. press corps also has given little attention to the questionable decisions by state and federal investigators to highlight the ACORN probe in the weeks before a national election.

Federal investigative guidelines strongly discourage election-related probes before ballots are cast because of the likelihood that the inquiries will become politicized and might influence the election outcomes.

“In most cases, voters should not be interviewed, or other voter-related investigation done, until after the election is over,” according to the Justice Department’s guidelines for election offenses as revised in May 2007 during Gonzales’s tenure as Attorney General.

Even though those May 2007 guidelines watered down even stricter language in previous editions, the Gonzales-era rules still cautioned:

“Overt investigative steps may chill legitimate voting activities. They are also likely to be perceived by voters and candidates as an intrusion into the election. Indeed, the fact of a federal criminal investigation may itself become an issue in the election.”

Despite these guidelines, it appears the Bush administration’s Justice Department has plunged ahead with the ACORN case, only three weeks before the presidential election.

On Wednesday, the Associated Press, citing law enforcement officials, reported that the FBI launched a probe into ACORN to examine evidence that the organization committed voter registration fraud around the country.

The reported FBI probe followed a clamor from the right-wing news media and Republican operatives over ACORN’s voter registrations.

The GOP’s assault on ACORN appears to be part of a broader strategy to raise questions about Barack Obama’s associations. Though Obama did once represent ACORN as a lawyer in support of a motor-voter registration law, his campaign says it has no connection to ACORN’s current registration efforts.

‘Cottage Industry’

On Thursday, Rep. John Conyers, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, complained to Attorney General Michael Mukasey and FBI Director Robert Mueller about the leak to the AP.

“As an initial matter, it is simply unacceptable that such information would be leaked during the very peak of the election season,” Conyers said.

“I know it has become a right-wing cottage industry to cry wolf over alleged ‘voter fraud’ during an election season (only to have such claims evaporate after the election has concluded).

“One would hope the Justice Department and FBI would more skeptically examine such sensational accusations than some cable news outlets. And this is particularly true where the allegations, even given their fullest reading, simply do not support such alarmist and unreasonable claims.”

The McCain campaign’s attempt to politicize the ACORN investigation in the closing days of Campaign 2008 has striking parallels to the Bush administration’s use of the same issue in 2004 and 2006.

David Iglesias, the former U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, was fired in 2006 after he refused to prosecute what turned out to be unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud leveled against ACORN.

In an interview, Iglesias said he was surprised that the FBI would have agreed to investigate ACORN now and that the inquiry must have received a green light from high levels of the Justice Department.

Iglesias said that in September 2004, when he set up an election fraud task force, he met professional resistance from the FBI.

“The FBI in [New Mexico] was skittish when I raised the voter fraud task force that I formed back in 2004 because the SAC [Special Agent in Charge} said the FBI General Counsel said such investigations were discouraged due to the appearance of being too ‘political,’" Iglesias said.

“I had to twist their arms for them to get involved and only after I assured them that no prosecutions would be filed before the election. … I wonder why the FBI went from being skittish back in 2004 to being forward leaning now. Who is pressuring them and why?"

Iglesias said Bush’s Justice Department issued a directive to all U.S. Attorneys to find and prosecute cases of voter fraud in their states during the hotly contested elections in 2002, 2004 and 2006, even though evidence of such abuses was extremely thin or non-existent.

In his book, In Justice: Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration, Iglesias said in late summer 2002 he received an e-mail from the Justice Department suggesting "in no uncertain terms" that U.S. Attorneys should immediately begin working with local and state election officials "to offer whatever assistance we could in investigating and prosecuting voter fraud cases."

Targeted for Dismissal

When Iglesias faced similar pressure again in 2006 – and refused to bring cases he considered inappropriate – he found himself on a list of U.S. Attorney’s targeted for dismissal.

According to a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, "Patrick Rogers, the former general counsel to the New Mexico state Republican Party and a party activist, continued [before the 2006 election] to complain about voter fraud issues in New Mexico.

"In a March 2006 e-mail forwarded to [Craig] Donsanto in the [Justice Department's] Public Integrity Section, Rogers complained about voter fraud in New Mexico and added, ‘I have calls in, to the USA [U.S. Attorney] and his main assistant, but they were not much help during the ACORN fraudulent registration debacle last election.”

Donsanto was the author of the updated May 2007 Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses manual that softened the warnings about investigating and prosecuting voter fraud cases before an election.

In June 2006, Rogers sent Iglesias's Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Rumaldo Armijo an e-mail:

“The voter fraud wars continue. Any indictment of the Acorn woman would be appreciated. . . . The ACLU/Wortheim [sic] democrats will turn to the camera and suggest fraud is not an issue, because the USA would have done something by now. Carpe Diem!”

John Wertheim was then chairman of the New Mexico Democratic Party.

Iglesias said he now believes GOP claims of voter fraud have been “unique to the Bush administration.”

“If voter fraud is such a problem nationally, why have there only been a handful of prosecutions in the past few years?” he said.

Campaign 2004

The current attacks on ACORN are almost identical to voter fraud allegations raised by Republicans during the final days of Campaign 2004.

In October 2004, Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign, called on Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry to demand that ACORN and other voter registration groups stop engaging in voter registration fraud.

Racicot said these registration efforts would "ultimately paralyze the effective ability of Americans to be able to vote in the next election."

Two weeks before the 2004 presidential election, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett announced the formation of a media campaign to counter what they claimed was voter registration fraud in nine Ohio counties.

“The reports of voter fraud in Ohio are some of the most alarming in the nation,” Gillespie said on Oct. 20, 2004.

Ohio was one of the battleground states in the 2004 election where tens of thousands of voters were purged from the registration rolls and where there were widespread reports that votes intended for Kerry went to Bush.

In Florida, another battleground state in the 2004 presidential election, where President Bush’s brother Jeb was governor, the state’s Department of Law launched a statewide probe into voter registration fraud just two weeks before the presidential election.

A press release issued by the Department of Law cited ACORN, which registered more than 212,000 new voters in the state.

In the two weeks before Election 2004, GOP officials raised similar concerns in Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.

Documents have since surfaced showing how GOP operatives recognized the value of this strategy.

An e-mail, dated Sept. 30, 2004, and sent to a dozen or so staffers on the Bush-Cheney campaign and the RNC, under the subject line "voter reg fraud strategy conference call," describes how campaign staffers planned to challenge the veracity of votes in a handful of battleground states, such as Ohio, in the event of a Democratic victory.

E-mails – among Ohio Republican Party official Michael Magan; Coddy Johnson, then national field director of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign; and Rove associate Timothy Griffin – reveal the men were given documents that could be used as evidence to justify widespread voter challenges if the Bush campaign needed to contest the election results.

Johnson referred to the documents as a "goldmine." The documents were lists of registered voters who did not return address confirmation forms to the Ohio Board of Elections.
 
Now, four years later, Republicans again seem to believe they can turn the voter fraud issue to their advantage, especially at a time when African-Americans and young people are registering in record numbers – and are viewed as likely to favor Barack Obama.

Jason Leopold has launched a new Web site, The Public Record, at www.pubrecord.org.

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