WASHINGTON — Over the last year and a half, paid employees of ACORN, a liberal-leaning community organizing group, have helped 1.3 million mostly young, mostly poor people register to vote, enrolling more new voters overall than any nonpartisan group in the country.
Why some applications reportedly were signed by Mickey Mouse and supposed members of the Dallas Cowboys, among others, emerged as the latest campaign controversy Tuesday when John McCain and Barack Obama traded charges on whether the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now has tried to pad election rolls with thousands of suspect voters.
The fracas escalated as the candidates crammed for the third and final presidential debate tonight. McCain, the Republican nominee, has lost ground steadily in recent weeks, and the final face-off may provide his last chance to reverse the slide.
McCain aides first accused ACORN of misdeeds last week. McCain upped the ante Tuesday when he called for an immediate investigation of what he described as "voter fraud going on" in battleground states. He also sought to tie the alleged irregularities directly to his Democratic opponent.
McCain told a TV station in Orlando, Fla., that Sen. Obama "has had relations with ACORN in the past," and he compared those ties to Obama's prior associations with William Ayers, a Vietnam-era radical who now is a professor of education in Chicago.
But election-law experts say there is a big difference between submitting bad registration cards and casting a "fraudulent vote." Thanks to new rules for checking newly registered voters, it is unlikely that bad names will be added to the rolls or lead to fraudulent ballots, they say.
"Mickey Mouse may show up on a registration list, but he's not likely to vote," said Ohio State law professor Daniel P. Tokaji.
Obama, responding to McCain, said he represented ACORN in a lawsuit against the state of Illinois in the mid-1990s to force the state to implement a federal law allowing people to register to vote when they obtain a driver's license. The U.S. Justice Department was on the same side as ACORN.
"That was my relationship and that is my relationship to ACORN," Obama told reporters at a resort near Toledo, Ohio, where he is preparing for the debate.
ACORN, Obama added, is not advising him and does not work for his campaign, which has run its own voter registration drive.
Warning that Republicans in the past have employed "voter suppression tactics," Obama added, "Let's make sure everybody is voting, everybody is registered, everybody is doing this in a lawful way."
Obama's aides acknowledged in a conference call Tuesday that the campaign paid more than $800,000 to a group affiliated with ACORN to augment get-out-the-vote operations during the Democratic primaries last spring in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Texas. The group did not register voters, however.
"We paid them for canvassing," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager.
Mike Slater, head of Project Vote, which helped ACORN run its current registration drive, said the group has identified about 5,000 "bogus or potentially fraudulent" applications so far. In most cases, he said, canvassers copied names from phone books.
"Voters have no incentive to do this," Slater said. "This is a work force issue."
An additional 65,000 applications have been disqualified because the information on the cards was incomplete, and 25,000 more have been deemed invalid because the voter was already registered, he said.
The group is barred by law from destroying such applications, but flags them and notifies local election officials in every case, he said. The group fires any canvasser found to have filed a fake card, and some have been prosecuted.
Six years ago, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act to make sure states did more to clean up their voter rolls. One provision requires states to have a computerized database of its voters. A second says a new voter should not be added to the rolls until the information on the person's registration card is checked against the state driver's license on file or a Social Security number.
"There are a lot of [registration] cards coming in, but they check every single one of them," said Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for California Secretary of State Debra Bowen.
Before the advent of computerized databases linked to state records, it was more possible to add suspect names or a duplicate registration to a county's voter roll.
"There was a time when you probably could get on the rolls as 'Mickey Mouse.' But the checking procedures are a lot better now because of HAVA. They have improved with each election cycle," said R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Assn. of Election Officials in Houston.
The charges and countercharges are not new.
"This is an age-old dispute," Lewis said. "The Republicans always claim voter fraud in every election. They cite fraudulent registrations, but they can't say that has resulted in fraudulent votes. And the Democrats claim there is voter intimidation going on all over America. When you look closer, that tends to disappear as well."