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WASHINGTON -- More than 43,000 Minnesotans have registered to vote this year through ACORN, the group that has come under Republican attack over voter registration irregularities around the nation.
But despite calls by state and national GOP groups to investigate ACORN, election officials in Hennepin and Ramsey counties say there is scant evidence of fraud, other than a few hundred late registration filings.
There are other kinds of problems. ACORN workers acknowledge that as many as a third or more of the registration applications they turn over to election officials are rejected for technical reasons, such as incomplete names, addresses and phone numbers. But they say that is not fraud.
Still, with 11 days to go before the election, ACORN's historic ties to Barack Obama and other Democrats have prompted GOP officials in Minnesota and elsewhere to raise questions about the group's voter registration work, questions that Democrats see as an orchestrated campaign to sling mud and suppress voter turnout.
The controversy was highlighted by Republican hopeful John McCain, who said in a recent presidential debate that ACORN's voter registration activities "may be destroying the fabric of democracy."
The issue of voter fraud has a long partisan history, including the Bush administration's firings of nine U.S. attorneys, among them David Iglesias of New Mexico, who clashed with GOP loyalists over his handling of voter fraud cases involving workers for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN's official name.
The issue was brought home to Minnesota in the past week as state Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey demanded that Hennepin and Ramsey county election officials disclose any information they have about problems involving ACORN, saying "this group has brought its record of fraudulent, reckless and misleading activities to our state."
But local election officials describe the GOP's concerns as overblown, saying ACORN is more likely the victim than the perpetrator of registration glitches that have been brought to officials' attention this year.
"I don't have the slightest notion that either ACORN or, frankly, any other group is involved in any systematic or widespread effort to violate our voter registration law," said Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky, former head of the Minnesota Secretary of State's election division and an expert on the state's voter registration process. "Not just this year, but any year."
Moreover, Mansky said, it is highly unlikely that any number of fake or duplicate registrations would result in improper voting, because all the cards are cross-checked with state driver's license and Social Security data.
Ramsey County officials acknowledge that they are looking into nearly 400 voter registration cards that were held by ACORN longer than the 10 days permitted by state law. A similar problem cropped up in Hennepin County.
So far officials have found 16 potentially fraudulent voter registration cards in Ramsey County, and none in Hennepin County.
"We don't have any ACORN-related voter registration problems," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, a DFLer. "Not a single one.
"What we have ... are some cards that were handed over to the registrar late. That's not fraud. It's a technical mistake."
Nevertheless, Freeman said his office is investigating one incident of tardy registration card submissions, which, if intentional, is a potential felony.
If charges are pressed, it would be the first time in Minnesota since 2004, when a 19-year-old ex-ACORN worker pleaded guilty to having stashed hundreds of registration cards in his car's trunk.
All cards must be turned in
Kevin Whelan, ACORN's deputy political director, said that this year the group has hired more than 300 voter registration canvassers in Minnesota as part of a $500,000 campaign conducted mostly in the Twin Cities. Most of the voters they register are young and low-income residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Of 43,162 voter registrations, ACORN has flagged 135 potentially "fake cards" and fired 20 people who were involved in turning them in. Whelan said ACORN has nothing to gain by turning in fake or duplicate cards, since they will eventually be nullified by public election officials anyway. "Anybody who turns in bad cards is defrauding us," he said.
Minnesota and many other states require canvassers to turn in all the registration cards they collect, even if they are suspicious. That is to guard against potential fraud by canvassing groups that might apply a political screen to the cards they deliver.
Whelan noted that it is up to public election officials to verify each completed card, and that ACORN flags those it suspects might be fraudulent.
Phil Carruthers, who heads the criminal division for the Ramsey County Attorney's office, said some of the 16 ACORN registration cards that his office is looking at appear to have wrong addresses, fake names, or potentially forged signatures.
Since the cases are under investigation, his office isn't releasing further details. But Carruthers said none of the cases would have likely led to people voting who weren't eligible.
In some states, ACORN has been accused of turning in registration forms with obviously fake names like Mickey Mouse. But the group says the faked forms have more to do with dishonest canvassers trying to get paid for work they didn't do rather than any attempt to stuff ballot boxes.
GOP raises concerns
But Republican officials say the taint of scandal remains.
"Minnesotans deserve to have confidence in the entire election system with the same degree of integrity in voter registrations as in counting ballots," said former Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican.
State Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague, has been a leading critic of ACORN's role in Minnesota: "It still shows a culture of disregarding the law," she said.
Brod also has made an issue of the state's failure -- until this week -- to cross-check voter registration lists with driver's license records to weed out noncitizens who may attempt to vote.
A check in 2006 turned up five noncitizens who were later found to have voted. John Aiken, a spokesman for the current secretary of state, DFLer Mark Ritchie, said that a new database check being done this week has turned up two additional noncitizens who are believed to have voted. Both cases have been referred to prosecutors.
Apart from that, Aiken said his office is not aware of any voter fraud cases in the state, although in most cases complaints are made at the county level.
Brod and other GOP critics remain unconvinced, noting that ACORN's political arm has backed a host of Democrats, including Obama and Ritchie. "I think it's absolutely inappropriate for a group that has a history of irregularities throughout the country to be endorsing secretaries of state that are required to look over them," she said.
But nationally, as well as in Minnesota, cases of actual voter fraud remain scarce. According to the political watchdog FactCheck.Org, the Bush administration has secured 70 federal convictions for election fraud. Forty of them involved violations by campaign or government workers, and 23 convictions were for multiple voting or voting by ineligible voters.
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753