Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was a left-of-center voter outreach and low-income advocacy umbrella group that disbanded in 2010 after accusations of voter fraud and the release of a series of videotapes appearing to show ACORN employees condoning illegal behavior.
ACORN was founded in 1970 as a poverty relief group in Arkansas. The organization soon became political and began to spread across the country with a focus on national issues. ACORN organized protests and supported ballot initiatives to enact left-progressive economic and social policies. At its peak, ACORN had more than 100,000 members and 1,000 member organizations.
From the mid-1990s through the 2000s, ACORN was plagued by a series of voter fraud accusations and internal scandals. After the 2008 election, its two greatest scandals resulted in widespread public backlash and the rapid drying up of funds until it declared bankruptcy in 2010.
In 2004, ACORN started ACORN International to export its efforts abroad. A number of left-progressive community organizing and labor union-aligned organizations—including Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, ACTION United, New York Communities for Change, and Action Now—have been identified as continuation or successor groups to ACORN, with some operating out of former ACORN offices. 
In 1970, Wade Rathke founded the Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) to provide local poverty relief. Wade had been a student at Williams College until he dropped out to protest against the military draft for Students for a Democratic Society. He was sent to Arkansas by the National Welfare Rights Organization, and then stayed to establish ACORN as an umbrella group for local charities. 
In its first two years, ACORN struggled to prioritize between charity work and political activism. Eventually, Rathke steered the organization toward activism, losing many members in the process. ACORN organized a march in Little Rock to protest traffic problems, and soon after established six offices throughout the state.  In 1972, ACORN endorsed two of its members in a school board election, and established its first office outside Arkansas. 
In 1978, ACORN held its first national conference and announced a national policy platform. The organization formed the ACORN Commission, which advised the Democratic Party to include more low and moderate-income delegates. ACORN Political Action Committees (APACs) were formed across the country to support left-wing candidates in local elections. 
By 1980, ACORN had offices in 20 states and 30,000 members.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the organization began to expand its scope and focus on national issues, and its offices throughout the country led marches, protests, and reform efforts targeted at local and state issues impacting the poor. 
Opposing the presidency of Ronald Reagan was ACORN’s top priority in the 1980s. In 35 cities, the organization established “Reagan Ranches,” tent cities containing hundreds of activists who protested Reagan’s economic policies. For the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, ACORN built a tent city for 15,000 demonstrators. ACORN also launched campaigns to mobilize homeless citizens (who had increased in number after the 1982 recession) to illegally occupy foreclosed vacant homes. 
By 1986, ACORN claimed 70,000 members in 28 states.  That year, it established the ACORN Housing Corporation to assist low-income individuals in purchasing their first home. ACORN claimed to have assisted 45,000 families in acquiring houses. 
In the early 1990s, ACORN focused on banking reforms. It led a campaign against banks to enforce better compliance with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), legislation that encouraged banks to give mortgages to low-income individuals, particularly racial minorities. At ACORN’s 1992 convention, its leaders met with representatives of major banks, including Continental, First Fidelity, and Mellon, that agreed to create programs catering to low-income Americans. 
Also in the early 1990s, ACORN began to launch get-out-the-vote campaigns. In 1992, future U.S. President Barack Obama was a “community organizer” for Project Vote, an organization founded by ACORN in Chicago. Obama would later work on a team of ACORN attorneys who sued the Illinois state government for allegedly violating federal polling laws. 
Another focus in the 1990s was wage laws. By the end of the decade, ACORN had helped enact higher minimum wage laws in 41 cities. 
Minimum Wage Exemption
In 1995, despite advocating for a higher minimum wage in dozens of cities, ACORN sued the state of California in an attempt to exempt itself from minimum wage laws, which it claimed were resulting in layoffs and thereby hindering its right to free speech. ACORN’s lawyers also argued that by paying lower wages, its employees would be more sympathetic with the low-income Americans the organization was attempting to help. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, with the presiding judge stating that ACORN was “laboring under a fundamental misconception of constitutional law.” 
Loss of AmeriCorps Grant
In 1996, the ACORN Housing Authority was stripped of a $1 million grant from AmeriCorps, a federally-backed national service program. AmeriCorps found that the ACORN Housing Authority had denied a connection to ACORN on its grant application, and therefore violated AmeriCorps’s provision that grant money not be spent for political purposes. 
In the late 1990s, Project Vote, the ACORN affiliate for which Obama worked, was involved in a kickback scandal where $850,000 was embezzled to support the Teamsters Union presidential reelection campaign of Ron Carey. 
Voter Registration Improprieties
In 1998, an employee of ACORN in Arkansas was arrested for falsifying voter registration forms.  In 1999, hundreds of voter registration forms in Philadelphia were invalidated after election officials concluded that they were filled out by the same individual, likely an ACORN employee. 
From 1999 through 2000, Wade Rathke’s brother Dale embezzled almost $1 million from ACORN. Once discovered, Dale Rathke agreed to pay back the stolen funds. However, Wade Rathke and other executives did not inform the ACORN board or the organization’s employees of the wrongdoing. Dale Rathke even remained a paid employee of ACORN. 
National Labor Relations Act Violation
In 2003, the National Labor Relations Board ordered ACORN to rehire and pay restitution to several employees after ACORN had fired them for attempting to form a union, thereby violating the National Labor Relations Act. Critics of ACORN noted that ACORN frequently campaigned for union-friendly employment legislation. 
Alleged Voter Fraud
For the 2003-04 election cycle, ACORN claimed to have registered 1 million new voters. Election officials in Florida began investigating thousands of instances of potential voter fraud connected to ACORN employees. Cases were then linked to thousands of more incidents in Ohio, Colorado, Missouri, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. 
The pro-business Employment Policies Institute released a report detailing “ACORN’s pattern and practice of deception and fraud.” Its findings included:
- ACORN registering ex-felons to vote
- ACORN paying employees for every voter registration (which was illegal in Florida, Missouri, and Pennsylvania)
- ACORN accepting petition signatures from individuals not registered to vote.
In the 2008 election cycle, ACORN publicly claimed to have registered 1.3 million voters. This figure was later revised downward to 450,000 after it was found that ACORN both exaggerated their claims and that 400,000 registrations were rejected by election officials. Ten states opened election fraud investigations.  In 2009, the state of Nevada brought criminal charges against ACORN for allegedly paying employees to register voters. 
In July and August 2009, conservative activists Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe visited five ACORN offices with hidden cameras. The two posed as a prostitute and a pimp, and they asked ACORN employees for advice on how to engage in various illegal schemes. In numerous instances, the ACORN employees offered advice that seemed to condone or support covering up prostitution, statutory rape, human trafficking, immigration fraud, and tax evasion, among other illegal activities. 
In September, Giles and O’Keefe released edited forms of the videos to Andrew Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com. ACORN initially responded by firing two employees featured in the tapes.  However, ACORN quickly reversed course and claimed the videos presented a false narrative through doctoring and selective editing, and that the “scam” had been unsuccessfully attempted at five other ACORN offices. ACORN reportedly considered suing Fox News for repeatedly showing the videos. 
A subsequent investigation by the Brooklyn District Attorney concluded that the videos used misleading editing to display a false narrative. 
As a result of voter registration fraud accusations in the 2008 election and the O’Keefe videotapes, ACORN rapidly lost support and funding in late 2009 and 2010. One day after the first tape’s release, the Census Bureau cut all ties with ACORN and ended a pre-existing partnership.  Six days later, the House of Representatives voted to strip all federal funding and future contracts from ACORN.  One week later, the IRS removed ACORN from its volunteer tax assistance program. 
By March 2010, ACORN was near bankruptcy, with 15 of the group’s 30 chapters disbanding, and two other chapters cutting ties with the central group to rebrand. The Affordable Housing Centers of America (formerly the ACORN Housing Authority) lost 12 of its 29 offices and three-quarters of its $24 million in funding in less than a year. At the time, ACORN officials vowed to keep the company operating. 
On November 2, 2010, ACORN officially filed for bankruptcy. 
A number of left-progressive community organizing and labor union-aligned groups have been identified or identify themselves as successor or continuation groups of ACORN. They include Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, ACTION United, New York Communities for Change, and Action Now.