PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Project Vote filed a lawsuit today on behalf of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a community organization comprising more than 20,000 working families in Pennsylvania that utilizes voter-engagement strategies, like voter-registration campaigns, as part of its work to strengthen low- and moderate-income communities. The lawsuit charges that a Pennsylvania law unconstitutionally restricts ACORN's right to conduct voter-registration drives by effectively prohibiting it from using paid canvassers.
The Pennsylvania statute at issue makes it a crime to "give, solicit or accept payment or financial incentive to obtain a voter registration if the payment or incentive is based upon the number of registrations or applications obtained." While the law could be read to prohibit only paying people per registration submitted, the Allegheny County District Attorney's office has applied the law to prohibit an organization from using flexible productivity standards and goals to manage paid canvassers. In May, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. charged several ex-ACORN canvassers with violating the statute under that theory.
"This law, which prevents ACORN from using commonplace management tools like performance standards and productivity goals to manage paid employees, does nothing to prevent election problems but does impose a major burden on constitutionally protected political activity," said Witold Walczak, the ACLU-PA's Legal Director and one of ACORN's lawyers.
"The Allegheny County DA's interpretation of this Pennsylvania statute creates a chilling environment that makes it impossible for anyone to manage a professional paid voter registration drive in Pennsylvania without fear of prosecution," said Brian Mellor, a senior attorney with Project Vote, which is co-counsel on the case with the ACLU-PA. "The impact of the restriction will be felt most by low income and minority voters, who rely more heavily on registration drives than do affluent and white voters," continued Mellor.
In 2008, ACORN unfairly came under fire for allegedly participating in voter-registration fraud. In reality, the Allegheny County Election Division requested that third-party-voter-registration groups such as ACORN submit all registration applications they collected, even those that were incomplete, inaccurate, or likely fraudulent, in order to prevent groups from collecting registrations and then not turning them in.
In fact, ACORN identified for elections officials the problematic applications at the time of submission, and turned over information on employees suspected of committing fraud. The careful training and quality control programs applied by ACORN's Pittsburgh office, which reflected the organization's standards nationally, resulted in the office identifying for the Allegheny County Election Division over 200 defective registrations, terminating several employees suspected of fraud, and cooperating with the district attorney's investigation of those employees.
Since 1970, ACORN has been one of the country's most influential advocates on social and economic justice issues for low- to moderate-income people. Voter registration has been an important part of ACORN's ongoing efforts to empower people in poor and minority communities. For more on ACORN, go to www.acorn.org.
Today's lawsuit, ACORN v. Tom Corbett, et al., was filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh. The lawsuit names as a defendants Attorney General Tom Corbett, who is legally obligated to defend its constitutionality, and District Attorney Zappala. The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the law unconstitutionally interferes with important political activity and to stop its enforcement.
Attorneys on the case are, besides Walczak and Mellor, Sara Rose, staff attorney with ACLU-PA; Teresa James, staff attorney with Project Vote; Arthur Schwartz of Advocates for Justice & Reform Now of New York City; and Claudia Davidson, a private practitioner in Pittsburgh. The complaint is available at: www.aclupa.org/acorn