WASHINGTON — A day after John McCain charged that the liberal-leaning voter registration group ACORN "may be perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history,'' it was disclosed Thursday that the FBI is investigating whether the group coordinated the filing of phony applications.
Details of the inquiry weren't readily available. McClatchy confirmed an Associated Press report disclosing the investigation and learned that the FBI was attempting to determine if ACORN systematically encouraged the creation of fake voter registrations in several states.
Executive Director Michael Slater of Project Vote, which funds ACORN and represents it in legal matters, said the group has yet to be informed of any national investigation but would cooperate. Slater said that any suggestion that ACORN was orchestrating voter fraud was "absolutely false."
For years, ACORN has been a force in registering mostly younger, lower-income minorities to vote. So far this year, the group has registered 1.3 million new voters.
Because those new voters often support Democrats, Republicans have targeted ACORN and accused organizers of trying to undermine elections. Under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, U.S. attorneys were encouraged to bring voter-fraud cases, mostly against Democrats, and some prosecutors who balked were fired.
Project Vote's Slater said the timing of the investigation was "highly suspicious" because it was so close to the election.
"We knew this was coming," Slater told McClatchy. "We saw in 2004 that we were attacked by Republican interests, and law enforcement was politicized to go after us. We saw civil suits and organizations created whose specific purpose was to demonize ACORN."
According to Slater, ACORN has alerted authorities on a daily basis since late last year whenever internal reviews found that canvassers had submitted suspicious application forms.
Slater said that 1,187 packages, each containing a registration worker's daily collection of as many as 18 forms, have been flagged for county election officials as "potentially bogus." He also estimated that about 1 percent of ACORN's nationwide registration applications — some 13,000 forms — could contain fictitious names or addresses. In addition, as many as 25 percent may be duplicates.
County officials review each registration application and reject all duplicates. To affect an election tally, someone would have to vote in the name of the fictitious registrant, which is a felony.
ACORN officials said that most phony submissions came from canvassers who were trying to get paid without actually finding citizens who wanted to register to vote. They simply filled out the forms using names from the phone book, fictitious names or, in one case, "Mickey Mouse."
ACORN is bound by laws in most of the 21 states where it's been active to turn in all new registration applications, even suspicious ones, and the group follows that policy everywhere, spokesman Scott Levenson said.
Law-enforcement agencies in 11 states have been investigating former ACORN canvassers — investigations that have involved the FBI in Nevada and New Mexico.
During Wednesday night's final presidential campaign debate, McCain pressed Democratic rival Barack Obama to explain his ties to ACORN, which he said "may be destroying the fabric of democracy."
Earlier, Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio sent a letter asking Attorney General Michael Mukasey to order an investigation of whether ACORN was committing voter registration fraud in an organized way.
The Ohio Republican Party is in a court battle with Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner over potential election fraud. The Republicans won a federal appeals court order demanding that Brunner turn over to county election officials by Friday the names of about 200,000 new registrants whose personal information did not exactly match state drivers' license or Social Security data.
Any discrepancies, no matter how small, could be used to challenge the eligibility of those Ohioans to vote.
Brunner filed an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY