Florida: Where there's smoke, there's fire

More ACORN stories: hereVoter-fraud stories: here

Union-backed voter fraud group ACORN alters '08 election dynamic for Barack

Two suspicious Seminole County voter registration cards became a flash point Wednesday in the Republican effort to suggest the community group ACORN is committing fraud in its historic Florida get-out-the vote efforts.

An ACORN spokesman said the group spotted what appeared to be forged registration cards weeks ago and fired a worker over them. But the Republican National Committee blasted the housing and wage advocacy group in a nationwide conference call with reporters, saying it wasn't an isolated incident.

ACORN, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, has become a force in the Florida race, signing up 135,000 new Florida voters since January in just three counties: Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange.

That's a fifth of all new voters. More than 58 percent are Democrats, who now outnumber Republicans by almost 500,000 voters -- providing Barack Obama a potentially crucial edge in the neck-and-neck race in Florida.

ACORN's voter-registration drives have come under fire from Republicans for being sloppy and allegedly fraudulent in North Carolina, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico and Colorado, said Republican National Committee chief legal counsel Scott Cairncross.

Cairncross noted that ACORN in Washington state had to file an agreement with prosecutors to improve procedures after seven workers were charged with criminal voter-registration fraud.

''This organization is not new to this game. They are a quasi-criminal Democrat-affiliated organization that harms the elections process,'' Cairncross said.

ACORN's Florida coordinator, Brian Kettering, said the organization is non-partisan. He dismissed the attacks saying the Republicans are trying to ``reduce the size of the electorate.''

''What's criminal is the way the McCain campaign is drumming up lies and misrepresentation to try to suppress minority voter participation,'' Kettering said. ``It's clear they are willing to use mistruths and exaggerations to try to create an atmosphere of chaos.''

Plus, he said, voter-registration problems don't equal vote fraud, such as someone showing up to the polls with a false I.D.

However, Secretary of State Kurt Browning, pointed out that unregistered voters could be signed up without their knowledge and then have absentee ballots fraudulently cast on their behalf in rare cases. Browning said he had a good working relationship with ACORN when he was Pasco County's elections chief until 2006.

ACORN is a massive nationwide association that made its presence felt in the 2004 elections when it signed up 212,000 people to vote in Florida, where it now has 15,000 members.

Republicans said ACORN wasn't just working on the successful ballot initiative boosting the minimum wage in Florida -- it wanted to help Democrat John Kerry. Kerry lost by about 381,000 votes. Since that election, ACORN says it has signed up 382,000 of the 442,800 new voters in Florida.

This year, ACORN's political action committee endorsed Obama, a former community organizer who had done work for ACORN.

''These are friends and allies of Barack Obama,'' said Republican spokesman Danny Diaz, who accused ACORN of ``undermining our election system.''

The Obama campaign says it works separately from ACORN. It reports signing up about 100,000 new voters of its own since January.

The registration drives have paid off in Miami-Dade for Democrats, where more than 63,000 Democrats have been registered compared to 12,138 Republicans and about 24,000 independents. That has increased the percentage of Democrats by nearly two full points, ---- to 44 percent ---- on the Miami-Dade voter rolls.

''Miami-Dade could be huge for us,'' said Obama's campaign manager, Steve Schale. ``This is a numbers game, and having tens of thousands of more votes makes us even more competitive in Florida.''

But the Republican Party of Florida has heard it all before: The big registration gains, the buzz, the anti-Bush talk. Yet the Republican presidential candidate, except in 1996, has won every time in the past three decades.

Nationwide, ACORN has signed up 1.15 million new voters. And, as a result, mistakes can pop up, Kettering said.

Kettering said the group pays card-gatherers by the hour and requires them to get working phone numbers to spot-check registrations. Bad card-gatherers and those who don't supply enough phone numbers for checking are fired.

The card gatherer in one of the Seminole County cases was fired in August, Kettering said, because the worker submitted too many cards without phone numbers.

In the other case, he said, ACORN warned the card gatherer to be more careful. Kettering said ACORN contacted the woman listed on the card, Sacha Thomas, who said she suspected her friend had signed her up. She wouldn't comment to The Miami Herald.

The man listed on the other card, James Stanley, couldn't be reached by The Herald.

Kettering said ACORN can't destroy cards, even suspicious ones -- which it flags with a sheet labeling it ''problematic.'' He said that happened in this case when the forms were submitted to Orange County, where the registrations were collected.

The paper-work was forwarded to Seminole County but the problematic-card note didn't make it. Orange County officials say they can't find the problematic card sheets. They have rapped ACORN for submitting too many cards too quickly. In six cases, ACORN submitted multiple duplications for voters, including one man who had 21 registrations filed on his behalf.

Orange's election supervisor, Bill Cowles, said he had a ''good working'' relationship with ACORN, as did Miami-Dade's Lester Sola and Broward's Brenda Snipes.

Seminole's election supervisor, Mike Ertel, had little bad to say about ACORN, either, though he was concerned about the two registrations.

''The story here is that the system worked,'' said Ertel, who had nothing bad to say about ACORN. ``We check 100 percent of these, and this rarely happens. I'm not sure this is a widespread issue. And we saw two this weekend that gave us pause. It gave me great concern. I don't want anybody disenfranchised.''


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