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Prisoners Used for 2008 Voter Registration, Election Campaigning

Last year, prisoners participating in a work release program were hired by Choices Group, a contractor, to register voters in Nevada. Residents of the Casa Grande Transitional Housing Facility in Las Vegas were used to canvass neighborhoods and sign up voters by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

In August 2008, in an attempt to avoid negative press, the Nevada Dept. of Correction (DOC) asked the contractor to suspend its use of prisoners to register voters. “We immediately contacted the Choices Group and asked them to terminate all work release inmates working for the ACORN organization,” the DOC said in a written statement.

The company complied, but not before the Nevada Secretary of State and Attorney General’s office launched an investigation. A criminal investigator with the Secretary of State reported that ACORN had hired 59 work release prisoners between March 5 and July 31, 2008. One of those prisoners, Jason Anderson, was promoted to a supervisory position.

On October 7, 2008, twenty boxes of files were seized from ACORN’s Nevada headquarters along with eight computers and hard drives. ACORN also relinquished 46 application packages related to 33 former canvassers. An examination by election officials turned up voter registrations with fictitious names and data, including the names of the Dallas Cowboys football team.

Bertha Lewis, interim chief organizer for ACORN, called the raid a “stunt that serves no useful purpose other than [to] discredit our work registering Nevadans and distracting us from the important work ahead of getting every eligible vote to the polls.”

The investigation had no impact on the November elections and resulted in no arrests.
ACORN officials denied wrongdoing; the organization has been accused of voter registration irregularities in other states, including Washington and North Carolina.

On the opposite side of the country, Jonathan Davis, in his bid for city council in Richmond, Virginia, used juvenile prisoners to produce signs, bumper stickers and business cards for his political campaign. Davis reported the services as a $1,500 in-kind contribution towards his election.

Davis is an advertising design instructor at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center, where the work was done. His election campaign reported $116 paid to the Bon Air program, which trains older teens in a variety of trades including carpentry, computer repair and food service.

“It’s a job-training experience,” Davis explained. “It’s the same thing I’ve been talking about in the campaign. We have to make sure when people are incarcerated they will have training to get a job.” Especially when that training benefits candidates for public office at a cut-rate price, apparently.

Chris A. Hilbert, who opposed Davis for the 3rd District seat, said he found the matter disturbing. “I just want to make sure that taxpayers and these incarcerated youth ... were not exploited,” he said. “It’s difficult to see [how] someone who’s incarcerated would do something voluntarily for someone who’s supervisory.” Davis maintained that he received no special treatment.

The more politics change, the more they stay the same. Almost 15 years ago, PLN reported that Washington State Rep. Jack Metcalf had used prisoners as telemarketers in his election campaign [PLN, May 1995, p.23], while Florida prisoners were used to type political donor lists. [PLN, June 1996, p.9].

Sources: Las Vegas Sun, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post

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