WASHINGTON — An ACORN community organizer received a death threat and the liberal activist group's Boston and Seattle offices were vandalized Thursday, reflecting mounting tensions over its role in registering 1.3 million mostly poor and minority Americans to vote next month.
Attorneys for the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now were notifying the FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division of the incidents, said Brian Kettenring, a Florida-based spokesman for the group.
Republicans, including presidential candidate John McCain, have verbally attacked the group repeatedly in recent days, alleging a widespread vote-fraud scheme, although they've provided little proof. It was disclosed Thursday that the FBI is examining whether thousands of fraudulent voter-registration applications submitted by some ACORN workers were part of a systematic effort or isolated incidents.
Kettenring said that a senior ACORN staffer in Cleveland, after appearing on television this week, got an e-mail that said she "is going to have her life ended."
A female staffer in Providence, R.I., got a threatening call from someone who said words to the effect of "We know you get off work at 9," then uttered racial epithets, he said.
McClatchy is withholding the women's names because of the threats.
Separately, vandals broke into the group's Boston and Seattle offices and stole computers, Kettenring said.
The incidents came the day after McCain charged in the final presidential debate that ACORN's voter-registration drive "may be perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history" and may be "destroying the fabric of democracy."
McCain's comments provoked a response from ACORN.
"I would not say that Senator McCain is inciting violence," Kettenring said, "but I would say that his statements about the role of this manufactured scandal were totally outlandish. We would call on Senator McCain to tamp down the fringe elements in his party."
McCain's campaign didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
Kettenring said that ACORN had received growing amounts of hate mail in recent weeks, but "the campaign debate sort of tipped it over to a scary point, where raising allegations of voter fraud went from a cynical campaign ploy to really inciting racial violence."
Since McCain's remarks, ACORN's 87 offices across the country have received hundreds of hostile e-mails, many of them containing racial slurs, Kettenring said. "We believe that these are specifically McCain supporters" sending the messages, he said.
The e-mail to the Cleveland employee was traced to a Facebook Web page in the name of a Baltimore man. It featured a photo of a McCain-Palin sign.
Kettenring said that the bulk of the e-mails had been either "flat-out racist" or had racial overtones. Most of the group's 400 members and about 80 percent of the 13,000 voter-registration canvassers are African-American or Latino.
It's unclear whether the alleged threats violated federal law, but Jonah Goldman, the director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit legal organization that battles discrimination, argued that the Voting Rights Act should apply.
"A real concern is the impact that these terrible acts have on the people who registered through these registration drives," Goldman said. "Legitimate, eligible voters who sign up through these registration drives may be understandably intimidated and choose not to show up at the polls, and the Voting Rights Act prevents voter intimidation."
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