A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

ACORN and the Census

Q: Is ACORN providing workers for the 2010 census?

A: No. ACORN employees will not be taking the census. The group is one of more than 30,000 "partners" that will help publicize the event.


Did the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) sign on as a "national partner" with the U.S. Census Bureau to sign up over 1 million temporary workers to help with the 2010 census?


ACORN has indeed signed on to partner with the Census Bureau in connection with the 2010 census, along with about 30,000 other groups at the time of this writing. Others under "A" include, for example, the American Statistical Association, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Avon Products Inc. and 57 additional organizations and corporations. The Census Bureau’s Web site includes an open invitation to sign on, and the agency says it expects to have more than 100,000 partners by the time the process is over. That may even be an underestimate: In 2000, it signed up 140,000 partners.

We’ve received questions about ACORN’s activities in connection with the headcount ever since a Fox News story, headlined "ACORN to play role in 2010 census," appeared in March. As retold by and filtered through blogs and chain e-mails, the news left some people with the impression that ACORN, the liberal community organizing group whose voter registration activities became an issue in last year’s presidential campaign, would be a big player in running the census effort.

ACORN "will be in charge of going door-to-door and collecting data from the American public," said Rep. Michele Bachmann in mid-June. "This is very concerning." Saying she was worried about ACORN’s supposed involvement in gathering census data, the Minnesota Republican announced that she won’t participate in the census beyond answering how many individuals reside in her household, "because," she maintained, "the Constitution doesn’t require any information beyond that." Actually, the Constitution, under Article 1, Section 2, simply requires that an "enumeration" be done every 10 years to apportion the members of the House, but that it be done "in such manner" as Congress "shall by law direct." And Congress has seen fit to require everyone to answer truthfully whatever census questions they are asked, under threat of a $100 penalty for failure to answer and $500 for lying.

And Bachmann is flat wrong about ACORN going door-to-door and gathering data. Being "partners" with the Census Bureau doesn’t entail as close a relationship as one might think. For the most part it involves getting the word out that it’s important for everyone to participate in the decennial event that helps determine where federal money goes and how House of Representatives district boundaries are redrawn.

Each partner group is asked to complete a form listing a series of possible activities with which it would be willing to help. ACORN’s form is on page 48 of a package of documents that was turned over to the watchdog group Judicial Watch by the Census Bureau under the Freedom of Information Act. ACORN checked off, among other items, "identify job candidates and/or distribute and display recruiting materials" and "provide space to train new [census] employees." But government officials have made it clear that that’s a far cry from having ACORN hire workers and conduct the census. At a hearing on April 23 before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke responded to concerns about ACORN’s role voiced by a Republican senator:

Locke, April 23, 2009: [T]he Census will not be hiring anyone from ACORN. We use these so-called partners to get the word out and to spread the word about the need for people to respond and answer the questionnaires. …We control the hiring. We do not use any government funds to subcontract with any organization to do any activity. …We are not delegating anything to ACORN. 

The Census Bureau documents given to Judicial Watch also indicate that in March, after the Fox News story on ACORN’s Census partnership was published, the agency was swamped with angry calls. This was its response: 

Census Bureau statement, March 2009: Any charge of claim that a Census Bureau partner could influence or have direct input into census operations is baseless and inaccurate. The sole entity that will conduct the 2010 census is the U.S. Census Bureau, along with its hundreds of thousands of dedicated workers. Further, the Census Bureau has strict quality assurance procedures in every operation to prevent the introduction of errors and/or fraudulent information into the national count.

Census Bureau public affairs specialist Shelly Lowe elaborated on the hiring process in an interview with FactCheck.org, saying that "partners help us recruit by promoting the fact that we’re hiring," but they have no say in the actual hiring. The agency will need a whopping 1.2 million temporary workers to go door-to-door, Lowe said, but it isn’t hiring everyone who walks in. "There’s a test, an FBI background check and a fingerprint check" that every applicant must go through, Lowe said. "We look for language skills, and we need people in every community."

And just as not every job applicant is hired, not every group that wants to be a partner is accepted. On page 47 of the Judicial Watch materials, an internal agency e-mail sets out some of the types of groups that would be rejected, such as hate groups and law enforcement, anti-immigrant or other groups that might cause some people to be afraid to participate.

ACORN Critics 

Why all the attention to this community organizing outfit? ACORN has been a frequent target of conservative talk show hosts, including Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, since last fall, when Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign accused the group of "massive voter fraud" and claimed that Obama had "long and deep ties" to the group. We found the voter fraud claim to be false – although some canvassers from the group had been found guilty of or investigated for voter registration fraud – and the one about Obama’s involvement to be overstated, although he has had more contact with the group than he originally let on. Nevertheless, the allegations are still floating around the blogosphere and talk shows, where ACORN is being described as a criminal enterprise that sends partisans to the polls to vote multiple times using the names of people long dead. We’ve continued to monitor the various cases against and investigations of ACORN workers, and so far there’s been no evidence that fraudulent votes were cast as a result of anything they did. ACORN describes and defends its voter registration work on its Web site.

The latest legal developments we’re aware of concerning ACORN are in Nevada and Pennsylvania. In Nevada, ACORN itself as well as the group’s former Las Vegas field director and its regional director for voter registration were charged in May with multiple counts of compensating individuals for registering voters. This appears to be the first time the organization itself has been criminally charged in connection with voter registration. The problem, according to the state attorney general, is that it’s illegal in Nevada for someone to be paid based on the number of voters he or she registers; the attorney general said that ACORN used both a quota system to keep or fire workers and a bonus system that rewarded employees further for registering more than 20 voters in a day. State officials said that the alleged practices resulted in thousands of "garbage" registrations on the voter rolls, including the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys.

A spokesman for the group said then that the bonus system was "in violation of ACORN’s national policies" and that canvassers didn’t have to meet a strict quota. Bertha Lewis, ACORN’s CEO, said at the time that the charges were "trumped up" and "outrageous," and that she was confident the group would be acquitted.

Also in May, the district attorney of Allegheny County, Pa., charged seven ACORN workers with forgery and violating election law by filing hundreds of bogus voter registration forms last year. That investigation is continuing, the D.A. said. There have been no accusations in either Pennsylvania or Nevada that ACORN or its workers are connected with any instances of voters casting, or attempting to cast, ballots illegally.

We’ve also received some non-ACORN-related questions about the census, having to do with allegations that the White House plans to interfere with the process. When Obama nominated Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire to be secretary of commerce in February, some groups complained that he was no friend of the Census Bureau, having resisted an increase in its funding in the 1990s. Those objections prompted assurances from the administration that senior White House aides would oversee the agency. But those assurances in turn triggered Republican cries that the White House was trying to politicize the census-taking process. Gregg withdrew as a nominee, citing the census as one of his concerns, though the administration had clarified that it didn’t intend to run the headcount out of the White House. It said it would simply work with the agency’s director, a practice for which there is ample precedent. In March, White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said:

White House spokesman Ben LaBolt, March 2009: The president wants to ensure that the census conducts a fair and accurate count. … The census director will report to the Commerce secretary. Like in every census under Democratic or Republican administrations there will be interest in Congress and at the White House in this national priority. 

Census spokeswoman Lowe further told us that the White House "has not proposed any organizational change. Given the scope and scale of the operation, in any census there is additional interest on behalf of the White House, as well as status updates, participation in promotional events, etc. The Census Bureau remains under the umbrella of the Department of Commerce."

–Viveca Novak


Kihara, David. "ACORN lawyers say case is political." Las Vegas Review-Journal. 4 Jun 2009.

Choate, Alan. "Nevada Charges ACORN." Las Vegas Review-Journal. 5 May 2009.

Dinan, Steven. "Minn. lawmaker vows not to complete census." The Washington Times. 17 Jun 2009.

Rucker, Philip. "Census director to work directly with White House." The Washington Post. 5 Feb 2009.

Corbin, Cristina. "ACORN to Play Role in 2010 Census." FOXNews.com. 18 Mar 2009.

Koffler, Keith. "Census Control Clarified." Roll Call. 11 Mar 2009.

U.S. Senate. Senate Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, and Related Agencies. Hearing on Oversight of the Funding of the Commerce Department. 24 Apr 2009.