How the ACORN Scandal Could Have Been Worse

The ACORN controversy has gotten me thinking about ballot measure law in Montana. Before you say, "Josh, your synapses are malfunctioning," allow me ...
by | October 22, 2008

The ACORN controversy has gotten me thinking about ballot measure law in Montana. Before you say, "Josh, your synapses are malfunctioning," allow me to explain.

Without a tenth of the attention, a scandal broke out in 2006 that's quite similar to what's now happening with ACORN. That scandal didn't involve registrations, but rather signature-gathering to place ballot measures before voters. But the underlying concept -- making up names or otherwise forging official documents -- was the same. I covered some of the details in my story on ballot initiatives earlier this month:

The 2006 election cycle, however, represented a turning point. That's when conservative activists, including wealthy New Yorker Howard Rich, aimed to turn Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights into a national phenomenon. At one point, it appeared that eight states would vote on the proposals. In the end, though, only three did.

The reason, generally, was signature fraud. In Michigan, election officials estimated that of the 500,000 signatures that supporters of the tax measure turned in, 200,000 were duplicates or otherwise invalid -- one man had signed 19 times. In Montana, a court found pervasive "deceit, fraud and procedural non-compliance." Signature gatherers, or "circulators," had done everything from making up fake addresses to tricking Montanans into signing three petitions for three different initiatives at once.

Not only were the controversies themselves similar, but the diagnosis afterwards was similar too. Both ACORN and the signature-gathering companies rely heavily on low-income workers, some with troubled pasts. Gathering signatures or voter registrations is hard, often unpleasant, work. The temptation to write down Mickey Mouse or Muammar Qaddaffi is quite strong.   

But, here's where the stories diverge. In 2006, some elections officials identified another problem. Signature-gathering companies commonly pay their workers by the signature -- $2, $3 or even $4 for each signature. Here's what Mike McGrath, the attorney general of Montana, told me: "The pay issue is an invitation to fraud. If you're paid by the signature, you're going to want to get as many signatures as you can."

For their part, the people who mange signature-gathering companies wonder how else they're supposed to pay. "You don't have employees that are working under supervision," says Angelo Paparella, who runs one such company. "The only way to evaluate if they're working at all, let alone if they're working well, is how many signatures they're collecting."

McGrath's argument won the day in Montana. After the 2006 debacle, the state passed a law prohibiting paying by the signature. Nebraska passed a similar law earlier this year.

When I first heard about ACORN's troubles, I instantly assumed that they were paying by the registration. That's the temptation for registering Mickey Mouse, right?

Well, from the media accounts I've read, that's actually wrong. ACORN was paying a flat rate ($8 per hour, from what I've seen). There weren't bonuses for collecting extra registrations, although, of course, if you weren't collecting registrations, you'd be fired.

What does this all mean? I'm not sure. You can make a case that it's proof that Montana's law won't work. As the ACORN situation shows, individuals may still commit fraud -- not for bonuses, just to keep their jobs. Then again, there's still a pretty good case that Montana's law will reduce the temptation.

Perhaps the real lesson is that the ACORN scandal could have been much for worse. Imagine how many Disney characters would be registered to vote if the organization had given a bonus for each new voter one of its workers found.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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