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California GOP had Same Voter Registration Problems as ACORN in 2006

Mistakes in big voter registration drives are inevitable, even in Republican campaigns.
 
 
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Faked names on voter registration forms. Error rates as high as 60 percent. Firing the people responsible for these errors. Investigations launched by local and state police. Sound familiar? This is not ACORN in the 2008 election's final days.

This is the California Republican Party and its contractors in 2006, when the same problems that are now dogging ACORN and providing political fodder for GOP attacks plagued an effort by California Republicans to register 750,000 people.

The details were all spelled out in a series of Los Angeles Times stories, which quoted former California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres saying these kinds of errors are inevitable "when you use private vendors." Even the state's top election official in 2006, Republican Bruce McPherson, was forced to investigate his own party's actions.

These same issues surfaced again last week as ACORN, the low-income advocacy organization which ran 2008's largest voter drive apart from political parties with 1.3 million new voters, was hammered by the GOP for submitting falsified voter registrations. The GOP's attacks have increased and even John McCain is saying that ACORN's actions are proof the Democrats are trying to steal the 2008 election.

"My friends… they must be investigated, and they must be investigated immediately and they must be stopped before November the fourth, so Americans will not -- will not -- be deprived of a fair process in this election," McCain said at a Wisconsin town hall meeting on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, two former U.S. senators who support McCain held a National Press Club briefing where they said voter registration problems could lead to a "nightmare" election in November.

The only thing ACORN's errors prove is that mistakes in big voter registration drives are inevitable, no matter who conducts them. When you look at all the other problems in the nation's voting systems -- from poorly designed ballots to electronic machines that lose votes cast -- the larger truth is every aspect of American elections is imperfect.

Right now ACORN has few public defenders, not in the last weeks of a presidential campaign. Its membership, which includes poor people, young people, minorities, is not as experienced as making its case to the media as the Republican National Committee or McCain campaign.

But let's put ACORN's errors in perspective. More than 120 million Americans may vote in November. ACORN, which hired 13,000 workers to register 1.3 million voters, had a few bad hires - like any big company.

But unlike the California GOP in its 2006 voter drive, ACORN has a policy of telling local election officials when it believes it has fraudulent registrations. It is required by states to submit all voter applications and urges election officials to prosecute knowing mistakes. The current case against ACORN comes from its own disclosures.

ACORN has not said how many bad registrations were flagged in 2008, but one nationwide estimate was 10,000. What is ACORN's error rate then? It would be less than one percent. Yes, in one Indiana County a third or more of its submissions were bad. In 2006, contractors for the California Republican Party had local error rates of 60 percent in San Bernadino County, the Los Angeles Times reported, where 1,800 out of 3,000 submitted registrations were incomplete and could not be processed.

How does ACORN's nationwide error rate compare to other voter registration problems? The data is thin, academics say. But two statistics are telling.

A 2007 National Science Foundation report for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found county election workers who entered voter information into county databases made mistakes 5 percent of time, if poorly trained. This is not the same as making up a voter's name, which is a prosecutable offense, but not all of ACORN's errors are fake names. Some are the same people filling out more then one voter registration form.

This month in Columbus, Ohio, Franklin County Board of Elections Deputy Director Matt Damschroder said about 2.5 percent of the 200,000 new voter registrations turned into his office in 2008 could not be processed because of typos, unreadable writing or missing information. He said that error rate was pretty good.

Moreover, in gathering signatures for ballot measures, it is a common practice for their sponsors to turn in "150 percent of the legal requirement," said Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News. "With some people, you can't read their hand writing."

Nobody in the national media is praising ACORN for an accuracy rate of 99 percent in its voter registration drive. Nobody praised the California Republican Party for an accuracy rate that probably also was in the 90th percentile in 2006.

But the real issue here is not whether any enterprise with 13,000 employees can make a mistake. The real issue is whether mistakes were caught, which they were - hence the Republican's political field day - and how do ACORN's voter registration problems compare in size and scope with the other problems concerning a fair 2008 election?

Last week, the New York Times reported that states using Social Security data to verify and update voter lists found 2.4 million "non-matches" for existing and new voters this year through September. The Social Security Administration says its data can be wrong 28.5 percent of the time when used this way, Wired Magazine reported in September.

Now that is something to really worry about, if the November 4th vote count is close in battleground states and the parties start fighting ballot by ballot - not whether ACORN or the California Republican Party submitted a few thousand bad voter registration forms in a nation or state where tens of millions of people will be voting.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and author of Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting (AlterNet Books, 2008).