It may be the case that the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — a group that seeks to register new low-income voters — is not a corrupt outfit bent on perverting the electoral process. It did, after all, flag and self-report many of the falsified voter registration forms that have found their way from ACORN offices into the hands of elections officials throughout the country to much publicity in the last month.

But it is certainly the case that quality control has yet to be adopted as a best practice in the voter registration industry. Consider just some of the most egregious of ACORN’s alleged indiscretions:

The Nevada Secretary of State is investigating the group after noticing that most members of the Dallas Cowboys suddenly “registered” to vote via the organization in the Sagebrush State.

A man in Ohio filled out 72 separate voter registration cards over an 18-month period for the group. In return, ACORN canvassers gave the man cash and cigarettes.

Registration forms submitted by ACORN in Bridgeport, Conn., contained scores of duplicates and phony information, including one card for a 7-year-old girl and one for a man who later said he never saw the form because he was, in fact, in jail at the time.

In Lake County, Ind., ACORN submitted 5,000 registration forms. The Elections Board stopped processing them after the first 2,100 all turned out to be fraudulent, including one purporting to be signed by sandwich entrepreneur Jimmy Johns.

This is a mere sampling of the investigations underway against ACORN around the country. All reflect gross negligence and a complete failure on the part of ACORN’s managers to provide employees with even rudimentary training on the legalities of registration collecting.

Now, no doubt most of the 1.3 million registrations submitted by ACORN throughout the country are legitimate, just as most of the group’s workers are undoubtedly honest. ACORN’s apologists have seized upon this fact — an absence of “widespread” fraud — to stifle criticism of the group, while suggesting that anyone concerned about Mickey Mouse registering to vote — as he did on an ACORN-submitted form in Florida — is simply a partisan with designs on voter suppression.

ACORN defenders have further tried to downplay the controversy by drawing a distinction between voter registration fraud and voter fraud. The latter is a serious offense that subverts elections, the argument goes, while the former, absent any further fraud, isn’t harmful.

Overlooking the administrative costs a state incurs by having to filter out fraudulent registrations, they’re correct in a strictly pedantic sense. However, fraudulently registering to vote is a necessary precondition for fraudulently voting. And in the few states like Wisconsin with same-day registration, the line between the two is blurred, if not nonexistent.

A person who does wish to commit voter fraud certainly won’t do it under the guise of Mickey Mouse or Tony Romo. They’ll do it with wholly unremarkable, yet fake, information. Such was the case with Darnell Nash, who is alleged to have repeatedly registered to vote with an address other than his own in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Election officials told him to stop submitting registrations, but he nonetheless showed up to cast a ballot during the state’s early voting period using a new fake registration.

Ohio voters were lucky. Nash’s fraudulent vote was discovered and canceled. Were it not, one legitimate Buckeye State voter would have been disenfranchised and his ballot cancelled out.

It would be wrong to assume that most fraudulent registrations lead to fraudulent votes. The risk-to-reward ratio is such that most people would not contemplate committing voter fraud. But Nash’s case demonstrates what is universally true: play with fire and you’ll get burned. Don’t adequately check fraudulent voter registrations and some percentage of them, even if very small, will lead to fraudulent votes. And let’s not forget that it would not have taken very many Darnell Nashs to sway the state of Ohio — and hence the presidential election — in 2004.

ACORN does not have a monopoly on the bogus voter registration business. Here in Wisconsin, a paid employee of the Community Voters Project was charged Tuesday with electoral fraud after allegedly submitting 54 falsified registration forms in Milwaukee, including one for a man who died in 1992. Other workers for the project had previously been implicated for submitting fraudulent registrations.

Last month, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen sued the state Government Accountability Board to enforce the provisions of the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, which requires states to check new voter registrations against a statewide database as of Jan. 1, 2006. The GAB did not get its database up and running until Aug. 6 of this year, at which point it started doing the checks, but only for registrations submitted after Aug. 6.

The Community Voters Project worker charged Tuesday “collected” his signatures from June 4 to June 17 of this year. Luckily, they were caught without the aid of the database check mandated by HAVA. That’s no guarantee that other fraudulent registrations were necessarily weeded out.

Enforcing voting laws isn’t about suppressing anybody’s legitimate vote. It’s about suppressing the votes of people like “Melissa H.” of 5186 N. 48th St. in Milwaukee, who was included on one of the Community Voters Project registration forms.

5186 N. 48th St. doesn’t exist. Voter registration fraud, sadly, does.

Ryan Masse ([email protected]) is a second-year law student.