The Never-Ending Story: ACORN’s Voter Registration Program in the Courts

August 10, 2011; Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal | Remember ACORN? The national organization has been out of business since April 2010, but conservatives still love to use the group to hammer community organizers (and the political leaders who support them) who dare to engage in constitutionally protected nonpartisan voter registration programs.

Now, in Nevada, District Judge Donald Mosley has fined ACORN $5,000 for one count of “felony compensation for registration of voters.” Conservatives, start hammering!

ACORN’s voter registration problems typify the organization’s basic management and oversight lapses that led to a high-profile review of ACORN’s operations by the Proskauer law firm. (Disclosure: the Proskauer attorney who led the ACORN review, Scott Harshbarger, has served as NPQ’s counsel and on its board of directors.) As we wrote at the time, ACORN’s response to the review was too slow, and the organization continued its long slide toward dissolution.

In the Nevada case, authorities charged that ACORN allowed its Las Vegas field operation to run a voter registration drive that paid people to sign up voters. That’s a big no-no. ACORN was also accused of an illegal quota system that “forced workers to register a certain number of people per shift or face termination.”

In line with the Las Vegas gambling ethos, ACORN field operative Christopher Edwards ran a program called “Blackjack” or “12-Plus” that paid staff for turning in 21 or more completed voter registration forms, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. In a defense that was indicative of the group’s problems with managing and controlling its far-flung operations, ACORN officials said that Edwards had been directed not to run the incentive-payment program.

ACORN-the-organization pled guilty to one felony count in return for state prosecutors dropping 12 others. Individual ACORN staff have already been convicted or taken plea deals, including Edwards, who is currently serving three years of probation after pleading guilty to two gross misdemeanors.

Delivering the sentence in court, Judge Mosley wished that instead of fining an intangible nonprofit corporation, he could send some real-life people to the pokey for having made a “mockery” of the election process and a “banana republic” of the United States.

While we needn’t walk Judge Mosley through the many examples of voter registration violations more egregious than ACORN’s Las Vegas blackjack compensation scheme, this ACORN story does have two important lessons for the nonprofit sector: When a very visible national organization screws up a critically important function such as voter registration, we all pay the price. And an organization that thinks that its politics trump the need for good management is a disaster in the making.—Rick Cohen