By Rebecca Bowe and Sarah Phelan
In April 2006, with the approval ratings of President George W Bush plummeting, his senior political advisor, Karl Rove, began discussing a plan to turn things around.
His strategy: Attack progressive organizations that were registering low-income people to vote and helping them fight corporate power—and claim it was about voter fraud.
The main White House target, newly released records show, was the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). By the end of 2006, Rove would oversee the removal of eight US attorneys, including two who refused to press bogus charges against ACORN here in New Mexico, as well as Missouri and a third under similar suspicions in Washington state.
ACORN made a convenient target for Rove and his gang—and the well-orchestrated attacks on that group, which have exploded into the headlines this year, provide a compelling case study in how the right wing operates in this country.
Although it was the GOP that removed tens of thousands of likely Democratic voters from the rolls in the 2000 and 2004 elections, the Republicans and their allies were able to make the issue of voter fraud all about ACORN, using a handful of isolated problems to undercut an organization focused on giving a voice to poor people.
Founded in Little Rock, Ark. at the end of the 1960s, ACORN has grown into the nation’s top community-organizer group, thanks to success in improving poor people’s housing, wages and educational access. By the eve of the 2008 presidential election, ACORN had helped register more than 1.3 million voters—mostly young, low-income minorities—in 21 states, including the battleground states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.
As The Nation put it, these successes made ACORN “something of a right-wing bogeyman.”
The recent furor is over videotapes that show ACORN employees counseling someone on how to set up a brothel and avoid paying taxes. The incident turned out to be a sting operation: The “prostitute” and “pimp” in the video were undercover conservatives.
Nonetheless, it has become a major story of the year: The Census Bureau severed its ties with ACORN and, in the middle of September, Congress voted to bar federal housing funding for ACORN (the entire New Mexico delegation voted in favor of the defunding bill).
While ACORN is not without its problems, the major media have mostly ignored how the attack on the group is part of a larger conservative strategy.
In August, hundreds of pages of emails and transcripts related to the 2006 US attorney-firing scandal were released to the press and public—but few news outlets mentioned that Rove was focused on attacking ACORN’s voter registration efforts, even though ACORN and voter fraud are repeatedly mentioned in these documents.
“This is about a campaign that goes back a decade to big business and the people who don’t like what ACORN does and is effective at—namely, helping groups to organize and put pressure on banks around sub[prime] mortgage loans to stop racial discrimination,” Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, says.
It wasn’t really about voter fraud. As former New Mexico US Attorney David Iglesias recently stated on The Rachel Maddow Show:
“They were looking at numbers [and] didn’t like the demographic tidal wave that was coming their way, so they wanted to engage the machinery of the Justice Department to stop that wave.”
In an email response to questions from SFR, Iglesias notes that “not only was New Mexico targeted for alleged voter fraud prosecutions by the GOP, so was Missouri, another swing state. Also the [US] attorney in Seattle was targeted for not filing voter fraud cases after the Republican candidate lost by under 200 votes in their gubernatorial race.
After two years of investigating ACORN and other supposed perpetrators of left-wing voter fraud, Iglesias said on Maddow’s show, “I couldn’t find one case I could prosecute.”
But for the right-wing attack machine, it didn’t matter—the damage was done.