To ACORN and its supporters, it was the group's effectiveness empowering the lower classes that made it a target. "You can organize people in their neighborhoods. You can pass out turkeys and warm coats in the winter -- but don't mobilize them," Bertha Lewis, the former ACORN CEO, now president of the New York-based Black Institute, told me last week. "If you do register them to vote, don't follow up and actually knock on their doors again and turn them out to the polls." When you do those things, she said, you become dangerous.
The story Lewis tells begins years before the 2008 election. In 2004, ACORN organized its members in Florida to go to the polls in support of an initiative to hike the state's minimum wage. In 2006, the group's efforts helped pass similar measures in six states across the country -- and Democrats seized control of the House and Senate. To Lewis, these successes and the threat they posed to the status quo were at the root of the Bush-era Justice Department's unsuccessful crusade against voter fraud, which led to the 2006 U.S. attorneys firing scandal. It's a direct line from there through the 2008 elevation of a former community organizer as the nation's first black president. Then came the resulting backlash, ACORN's demise, and the current, largely Republican push for voting restrictions in states across the nation. To Lewis, all of these developments were battles in the larger war over the votes of lower-income and minority citizens. (Proponents of voter ID and other measures say their concern is with ensuring the integrity of the voting process.)
"Stay in the projects. Stay apathetic. But don't turn those folks out and actually say to them, 'You are a citizen, you are eligible to vote and we're going to come and make sure we do everything we can to make sure you get to the polls and your vote is counted,'" she said. "Otherwise, why have all this voter suppression? You can't win fair and square, so you decide you're going to rig it. Romney said what he meant. They know that if they let these people vote, they cannot win."
Social-justice activists like Lewis say community groups are now regrouping from the setbacks of the last few years. Grassroots activists across the country are stirring into action in part as a backlash to the rise of the Tea Party; Occupy Wall Street showed there's energy behind the progressive cause. The 2012 Obama campaign, whose hopes for victory rest on maximizing the proportion of young, minority, and lower-income people in the electorate, has conducted voter-registration drives across the country. But without ACORN, there's something missing.
The numbers tell the story. New voter registrations nationwide are nowhere near their 2008 pace, and Democratic registrations in particular have leveled off. A study by the center-left group Third Way found that in eight swing states, Democratic registrations were down by 830,000 since 2008, while Republican registrations had decreased by 330,000 and independent registrations were up by 320,000. The Boston Globe found a similar story in looking at registrations in Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada: Democratic registration up a little (40,000), Republican registration up many times more (145,000), and independent registration making the most gains (230,000). Meanwhile, those who are eligible but not registered to vote favored Obama over Romney by a 3-to-1 margin in a recent poll.
"An enormous voter-registration effort was made in 2008, starting in the primaries and carrying on beyond as a principal part of the Obama strategy in the fall election," said Tom Lindenfeld, a Democratic consultant who has worked on registration drives. "The fact is none of that has happened in the same way this year. There's been some registration work, but just to stay even you have to do a lot." This year's efforts, he said, have probably not been enough to restore voter registration to its 2008 proportions, much less exceed them.
"Why have all this voter suppression? You can't win fair and square, so you decide you're going to rig it. Romney said what he meant."
Just look at Nevada, where I witnessed ACORN's work up close four years ago, and which is again a hotly targeted presidential swing state this year. In 2008, the state recorded a record 1.2 million active voters, including more than 100,000 more Democrats than Republicans. Four years later, the total number of registered voters is down to 1.1 million, and Democrats' advantage is only about 55,000.
The specter of ACORN hangs over 2012 in ways seen and unseen. There are the dozens of voter ID measures that have been enacted across the country to protect against largely imaginary fraud, some of which, like Pennsylvania's, are still being examined by courts six weeks before Election Day. States have shortened their early voting periods, tried to "purge" the rolls of suspicious potential voters, and restricted the ability of third-party groups to conduct voter-registration drives. A Tea Party-affiliated group says it will deploy an army of "observers" to monitor the polls in November, an effort that has the left alarmed about the potential for intimidation and harassment.
While all of these efforts push to shrink the electorate, their major erstwhile counterweight -- ACORN's grassroots effort to expand the electorate -- is gone. Lewis, the former ACORN CEO, admits there's a void.
"In 2008, we accounted for 25 percent of all new voter registrations -- our one organization, which took us years to get up to that," she said. After the election, "there were millions of dollars arrayed against us. That was the right's money well spent. Registration is way down. Engagement is way down. People are being threatened, and this Tea Party group now says it's going to show up at polling places. You've got to give the right credit where credit is due."
Lewis worries about what effect this will all have on the election, as well as the longer-term project of community empowerment. But with Romney making remarks like his 47 percent tirade, she finds hope that he will accomplish what organizers haven't -- galvanizing the poor.
"I was a little bit more skeptical," she said. "But I'm feeling a lot better now because Mitt Romney is such a gargoyle." By slighting the "47 percent," she hopes, Romney may just have given them the reason they need to sign up and vote.