This past week, I committed voter fraud. Or, I should say, “voter fraud” inside the same sarcastic scare quotes that John McCain deployed when he recently invoked that old tricky word “health,” as in “health of the mother.

I didn’t even need to take my cues from ACORN. I’m kind of a voter-fraud cell of one, you might say.

Here’s how it went down.

Having moved to DC last year, I suddenly realized a week ago that I needed to register to vote at my new (disenfranchised) address by October 5th. So I dutifully printed out the form, filled it out and prepared to mail it. I happen to live in one of those pre-war apartment buildings that has a mail chute (side point: how great are mail chutes? why don’t all buildings have them?). As I went to the mail chute to deposit my registration I encounter a problem: the chute hole was too small for the large registration form. So, foolishly, I folded it in half and stuffed it in. Immediately, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. The form got about a foot down before getting stuck. I went and got a coat hanger, attempting to fish it out, but, of course, as always happens in these situations, only succeeded in pushing it further down. I resigned in despair and gaped: There was my precious franchise, tantalizingly close, and yet so far. What to do?

Since it was only a few days before the registration deadline I had no choice. The next day I printed out another form and mailed it in, from a mailbox on Capitol Hill. But here’s where the serious, class A fraud comes in. That very same day, my excellent and competent building super had managed to get the mail chute unstuck, meaning there were now – gasp! – two identical registration forms speeding their way towards DC Board of Elections Headquarters. That’s right, a fraudulent registration with my name on it. Oh noes!

Ok, so obviously this is absurd. I had no intent to defraud the DC Board of Elections, and certainly no intent nor means of voting twice, which is the actual theoretical danger being invoked here.

The faux-outrage that Republicans have marshaled over alleged voter fraud is so transparently faked, so expertly cynical it’s almost surreal. When John McCain accused ACORN of being on the “verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history” Obama just broke down laughing. I was too. It was the only reasonable reaction.

But sure enough, they’ve managed to embed the notion deeply among the right-wing base and it’s now bled into popular discussion. (Someone on ESPN made an ACORN, vote-fraud joke the other night, which is when I knew this had gotten out of hand).

As nearly everyone on the left has pointed out, this is an old routine. Every two years, Republicans gin up baseless accusations of “voter fraud,” often directed at ACORN. The strategic imperative is simple: create a pretense that will allow them to more credibly hassle and hopefully suppress poor and minority voters.

Just to get this out of the way: in the real world, there is no such thing as voter fraud. There will be roughly as many fraudulent votes cast in this election as there were stockpiles of biological weapons in Iraq. That is to say, none. (See Dahlia Lithwick for more on this). But what about all those duplicate and obviously fake voter registration cards submitted by ACORN? you ask. They were required by law to submit them. (See Rick Hertzberg for more on this). In order to prevent tampering, state law in many places requires groups like ACORN to submit all the forms they collect, whether obviously erroneous or not.

Keep in mind that ACORN’s registered somewhere around 1.3 million people this cycle. Not surprisingly, there are errors. Think of all the times you’ve eaten at a restaurant in your life. On the rare occasions when the restaurant totaled the tip wrong, were they trying to defraud you? Did you inform the cops of an attempted robbery? Are you suspicious of restaurants generally and view them as an enterprise committed to widespread fraud? No, of course not. You would have to be a paranoid doofus to believe that.

Indeed, the entire notion of a massive shadowy effort to subvert the election through wide-scale voter fraud has about as much credibility as the theory that the United States government perpetrated the attacks of 9/11. Like 9/11 conspiracy theories, it’s easy to throw out a few tantalizing details–steel can’t be melted by fire! Mickey Mouse registered to vote in Florida!–that, if introduced in the periphery, amidst the noise of daily life, can reasonably sow some vague suspicion in the mind of a generally rational person that something dark and far-reaching is being hidden from us. But if you take a step back and try to actually think through the idea in any serious fashion it falls apart faster than wet tissue paper.

Let’s do it anyway. Imagine ACORN wanted to pull off a massive campaign of voter fraud. What would that look like? Well, first they’d probably want to target swing states. And if they were going to undertake the task, they’d have to set up a goal of delivering a certain amount of votes in each of these states, say, just to be conservative, 500. Now, if they were planning on stealing or buying that many votes in each swing state, it’s pretty unlikely they would be sending out press releases every day publicizing their work, boasting about their voter registration numbers and inviting reporters like myself to come shadow their workers. Indeed, it’s unclear why they would bother registering too many people to begin with. Just how would 1.3 million extra registrations aid them in pulling off their fraud? How do all those extra registrations help any one person vote twice?

In fact, the easiest, most direct way to commit fraud would be to find 500 people and simply pay them to register and then vote the way you want. But doing that wouldn’t be aided by a widespread voter registration drive with lots of faulty registrations. Indeed, that would only draw unwarranted attention! And if some organization were to attempt some plot to pay lots of people who ordinarily don’t vote to register and then vote the way they say, what are the odds that would stay secret? Approximately zero.

In other words, the ACORN-Truthers persist in believing something that on its face is manifestly and obviously absurd. But this isn’t some fringe movement. This is being cynically fomented by everyone in the entire right-wing noise machine, from talk radio, to Fox News, all the way up to the actual members of the ticket, Sarah Palin and John McCain. My suspicion is that the people who are fomenting this garbage, the RNC, Sarah Palin, Fox News and others know that it’s bullshit.

But for frank political reasons they are heavily invested in reducing the number of poor people and black people who vote. Black people are going to vote for Barack Obama in overwhelming, historic numbers. Poor people vote for Democrats by massive margins as well. Ergo, the Republicans want to keep them home. Simple as that. Increasing the likelihood that these voters are struck from the roles, or intimidated into staying home redounds to their benefit.

Then there’s the rank and file, the members of the GOP’s base who’ve been told by their leaders that there actually is a massive conspiracy afoot and whose belief to that effect have now so hardened that no bit of logic, reason or evidence will puncture it. This is dangerous stuff.

If Obama wins, we are going to be living with this for a while. Not only is this a deeply cynical attempt to subvert the democratic process itself, to roll back the clock to the days of yore when the franchise was a bit more, ahem, heavily restricted. It is also an attempt to deny Barack Obama, the Democratic party and the center-left a legitimate claim at state power.

In the meantime, it is, as it so often is, up to the media to call this what it is: deranged and paranoid. Anyone who implies or accuses ACORN of pulling off a fraud of historic proportions should be treated by the media with about as much deference as those who say 9/11 was an inside job.