Romney's comments about the "47 percent" -- an imagined Democratic-voting underclass -- highlighted a problem for Obama: His 2008 voters may not show up in 2012.
"POOR PEOPLE DON'T VOTE."
An ACORN organizer named Chris Edwards scrawled the words on a white board in a dingy Las Vegas strip mall. It was the summer of 2008, and Edwards was training a roomful of $8-an-hour job seekers to go out and sign up new voters in the worst parts of town in 109-degree heat.
"We have to blow this up, break this axiom that poor people don't vote," Edwards told the room that day. "We have to destroy it." Only by participating, he said urgently, would lower-income people get elected officials who actually cared about their needs.
In 2008, ACORN and similar groups came closer than ever before to reaching their goals. Voter registration skyrocketed across the country -- also buoyed by a drawn-out, competitive Democratic primary and widespread enthusiasm about a historic election, to be sure. But ACORN was a major player. Working in tandem with an organization called Project Vote, the group recorded 1.3 million voter applications across the country; it claims to have been responsible for one in four new voter registrations of 2008.
ACORN is defunct now, the victim of both a right-wing campaign against it and the group's own internal problems. And while it was never the case that the group, as some on the right charged, conspired to steal the election, there's no denying it provided a substantial boost to President Obama four years ago.
Now, with the polls locked in a near-dead heat as the final weeks of the 2012 election tick down, the major remaining question mark is who will comprise the electorate. This is where ACORN's absence is being quietly but consequentially felt. The surge in voter registrations, mostly Democratic, that occurred four years ago has not been duplicated this year, posing an obstacle to an Obama reelection effort, which depends on continuing to expand the electorate.
"2008 was an exceptional year. For the first time, you saw African-Americans represented in the electorate at the percentage they are in the population, and that's a really big deal," Sarah Massey, a former labor organizer and ACORN consultant who now works for the national voter-participation nonprofit Project Vote, said in a recent interview. In 2012, she admitted, there's no equivalent national effort mobilizing lower-income, minority, and young voters the way ACORN and Project Vote did four years ago. "They could take it across the country," she said. "We definitely have a deficit without them."
It is an underappreciated irony of Mitt Romney's now-infamous "47 percent" theory of the election: The vast, dependent underclass of "entitled" welfare recipients that Romney envisioned as the base of the Democratic Party are actually the least likely to turn out and vote.
"It is by and large upper-class people who vote and who have a voice in our government," said Henry Brady, dean of the University of California, Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy and co-author of The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy. "The upper [income] quintile participates at roughly twice the rate as the lowest quintile."
One of Brady's graduate classes spent a session last week trying to parse Romney's statements about the connections between income, government dependency and electoral participation. "In fact, the people you might think most need government involvement are the least likely to be actually involved," he said. In studies, those receiving means-tested government benefits such as welfare and Medicaid routinely record some of the lowest rates of voter participation.
The result, according to social-justice activists and academics alike, is a system where both parties routinely ignore poverty and other issues affecting the lower classes. "There is pretty good reason to believe that unequal political voice does lead to unequal political outcomes," Brady said. "For example, America's had less redistribution of income than many other countries, and the reason for that is probably a much less mobilized middle and lower class."
In other words, Romney might have been right that those most dependent on government tend to vote their economic interests when they show up. But they don't constitute the voting base of the Democratic Party or any other party, because they don't turn out to vote.
Four years ago, ACORN's massive effort to mobilize poor people represented an attempt to change that, and it succeeded as never before. In so doing, the organization also attracted a storm of partisan fury that helped seal its demise. This time around, with ACORN out of the picture and no one filling the void, the question is whether Obama can win without it.
The major problems with ACORN's voter-registration work came to light in 2008, when Nevada officials noticed that Mickey Mouse, Tony Romo, and other unlikely Nevada voters had had registration forms submitted by ACORN canvassers. The resulting firestorm made the group a major buzzword of the final weeks of the 2008 campaign.
Sarah Palin made it a cornerstone of her stump speech, saying Barack Obama's ties to the group from his community-organizing days raised questions about his character. The McCain-Palin campaign hammered the issue with videos, memos, and conference calls. In the final presidential debate, John McCain brought up Obama's ACORN connection three times, saying the group was "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."
"There is pretty good reason to believe that unequal political voice does lead to unequal political outcomes. For example, America's had less redistribution of income than many other countries."
The truth was more banal. Because ACORN paid its canvassers, the motives of its field workers could be less about empowering the underclass and more about bringing home a check. And while ACORN claimed the workers were paid hourly, no matter how many voters they signed up, Edwards later testified that they were subject to daily per-registration quotas and bonuses, giving them an incentive to falsify the forms.
Paying for registrations is illegal under Nevada law, and in 2009 Edwards pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor, testified against higher-ups in the organization, and received a suspended sentence; ACORN also pleaded guilty and paid a fine. It remains the only successful prosecution of the organization in the wake of the 2008 furor over its supposed corruption, and no fraudulent votes were found to be cast. How could they, when Mickey Mouse and Tony Romo were hardly going to show up at the polls?
Nonetheless, ACORN became a major bogeyman on the right. After Obama won, polls found a majority of Republicans believed he had stolen the election with ACORN'S help. Another major area of the group's work was housing, and the right-wing provocateur James O'Keefe stirred up a firestorm when he sought housing assistance at ACORN offices dressed as a pimp, accompanied by a supposed prostitute. Republicans in Congress passed legislation to eliminate ACORN's government grants, and by 2010, the group could no longer pay its bills. (Several investigations of ACORN based on O'Keefe's videos found no criminal wrongdoing.)
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.