Rooting Up ACORN

NPR’s take on the suddenly infamous organization

Ever since the McCain campaign called for an investigation into voter registration fraud perpetrated by the nonprofit organization ACORN, many news outlets have attempted to clarify what, exactly, the group does and how it is connected to Barack Obama.

Today, NPR’s Peter Overby offers another take, which, unfortunately, leaves listeners with no clearer understanding about the legitimacy of the allegations. The lead-in to the piece promises that there’s “a lot more” to the ACORN story than the GOP accusations. There is, but NPR fails to put all the pieces together.

The NPR report does a good job establishing ACORN’s mission—advocating for jobs, education, etc.—and the archive department pulls a great ace from the audio library: a 2006 clip of John McCain congratulating ACORN organizers for exemplifying “what makes America special.”

NPR also lays out the full extent of Obama’s connections with ACORN: the Illinois lawsuit, the affiliation on Project Vote, the $800,000 paid for voter registration work, and the endorsement of the organization’s PAC. But things get muddled afterward.

Overby interviews Tim Miller, from the corporate-backed Employment Policies Institute, who details the history of complaints against ACORN and maligns the group’s financial practices, in light of the recent embezzlement-related ouster of the group’s founder. (The founder’s brother, the organization’s controller, stole approximately $1 million from the group.) But Overby spends no time explaining that the embezzlement scandal has no connection to the current registration fraud issues, and, more importantly, that Barack Obama has no connection with either affair.

Next, the report airs a McCain ad linking Obama to ACORN’s alleged pattern of “nationwide voter fraud.” Yet Overby does not clarify the difference between vote fraud and registration fraud; nor does he explain or contextualize the claim that ACORN is “flooding polling places with illegal voters.” An attorney specializing in voting protocols would have been useful here. Yes, ACORN may have submitted some fraudulent registration forms, but that’s because they’re legally required to submit every form they collect. Otherwise we’d invite a different kind of registration fraud, where organizers could throw out forms they deemed unacceptable for any given reason. What’s more, ACORN itself raised some of the alerts about the legitimacy of the forms now under investigation. And, also, the questionable forms represent a small portion of the overall registrations collected.

There are legitimate angles to the ACORN story, and they deserve to be reported. But what we’re missing here is context. NPR and others have to fulfill their “a lot more to the story” promise. Explain how ACORN registers voters; explain the laws; explain when Obama was involved and when he wasn’t; outline ACORN’s association with the Democratic party, and with the Republicans as well. The group has a complicated history, as this Slate piece explains. Pinning the fault entirely on Obama and the donkeys is a massive stretch.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.