Posted June 12, 2007 by J. Gerald Hebert
FEC Nominee Hans von Spakovsky: A Repeat Offender
In recent weeks, the politicization of the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been in the spotlight. One of the people implicated in that emerging scandal is Hans von Spakovsky, who has been nominated to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and whose confirmation hearing is set for tomorrow before the Senate Rules Committee. Previous blog posts have highlighted Mr. von Spakovsky’s misdeeds at the Department of Justice and his poor record over the last year as an FEC Commissioner. But little has been written about von Spakovsky’s pre-DOJ involvement with a group called the Voting Integrity Project (VIP). Who are they ? What did they do ?
Both the New Yorker magazine and the online magazine Slate have reported previously on the VIP. Here’s what has been published thus far:
“The Front” written by Jeremy Derfner for Slate, details the activities of the Voter Integrity Project (VIP), a partisan group to which Mr. von Spakovsky was an advisory board member.
The article essentially described the group’s activities as trying to limit voter access, but supposedly increase voter “integrity.” From watching over people’s shoulders at polling locations, to demanding photo identification laws, the group has tried to push laws that would make it more difficult to vote while coincidently disenfranchising traditionally Democratic voters.
Prior to delving into election policy issues, the VIP group, which appears to be defunct, started out its activities by “answering the call from election losers who accused their opponents of fraud.” For example, the Slate article notes that in 1996, the group hired a private investigator to support its claim that Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) had won her seat as a result of votes stolen from her opponent. VIP filed a report with the Senate Rules and Administration Committee but after a year of investigation by the Committee, the investigation was dropped by a unanimous vote.
Although the VIP claimed to be independent and non-partisan, it was anything but. As the Slate article notes, “though VIPs members assert that they are both independent and nonpartisan, the organization is essentially a conservative front. Five of seven members of the governing board are Republicans. The lone Democrat is a college student who designed the VIP website.” Helen Blackwell, Virginia Chairwoman of the Phyllis Schlafly’s group Eagle Forum, served as VIP’s chairwoman of the board.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the VIP’s activities was its poll watching program. In the Slate article, the President of the Voter Integrity Project (Deborah Phillips) noted that her organization sent in poll watchers to look over the shoulders of poll workers. According to Phillips, the group wanted to have a chilling effect on voters whose registrations were either invalid or questionable. In Phillips’ words: “when [illegitimate voters] see VIP poll watchers in there checking lists, it has a chilling effect.” But as the Slate article correctly notes, such poll watching and voter challenging activities can have “a chilling effect on legitimate voters as well.” This is especially true because the VIP poll-watching program was often targeted to “heavily minority neighborhoods…on the theory that they generate suspiciously ‘lopsided’ results.” Essentially, VIP’s theory of poll watching seemed to be: if people are voting overwhelmingly Democratic, there must be cheating involved.
In the New Yorker article, titled “Poll Position” by Jeffrey Toobin, we learn of von Spakovsky’s role in the 2000 Florida Bush v. Gore contest. At that time, von Spakovsky was still associated with the Voting Integrity Project and the group was commissioned by the State of Florida to clean up Florida’s voter registration rolls by purging ex-felons from the rolls. But von Spakovsky’s group ended up purging many people who were not ex-felons in error. As the New Yorker reported: “the process for the removal of alleged felons…led, notoriously, to the mistaken disenfranchisement of thousands of voters, most of them Democratic, before the 2000 election.” During the weeks after the famously contested election and recount in Florida, von Spakovsky served as a volunteer to the Bush campaign. Soon thereafter, he was awarded a career attorney slot in the Civil Rights Division, a slot normally reserved for those hired on merit and without regard to their past partisan activities.
Once he arrived at DOJ, von Spakovsky continued to offer legal advice that was flawed and usually aimed at limiting voters’ rights, rather than seeking an expansive view of the right to vote. For example, the New Yorker piece notes that von Spakovsky advised Maryland officials that the state was required to verify Social Security numbers for those registering under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA)—an interpretation that the Maryland Attorney General’s office found “clearly contrary to the statute[.]”
Congress enacted the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (also known as the “NVRA” and the “Motor Voter Act”), to enhance voting opportunities for every American, and making it easier for all Americans to register to vote and to maintain their registration. The NVRA grants the Department of Justice authority to bring civil actions in federal court to enforce its requirements. In January 2005, while at DOJ, von Spakovsky used the NVRA to launch an anti-voter initiative. As reported by Greg Gordon in the June 5 Sacramento Bee, the Department of Justice sued officials in seven states— Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Missouri, New Jersey and New York—demanding that they comply with NVRA by purging their voter rolls. According to former Justice Department Voting Chief Joseph Rich, von Spakovsky’s directive changed Justice Department priorities under the motor voter law “from expanding registration opportunities—the primary purpose of the statute —to unnecessarily forcing jurisdictions to remove voters from their voter rolls.” Rich added: “Aggressive purging of the voter rolls tends to have a disproportionate impact on voters who move frequently, live in cities and have names that are more likely to be incorrectly entered into databases.” Primarily, Rich said in the article, this means poor, minority voters. The Senate Judiciary Committee has been looking into the allegations that Justice Department officials, like Hans von Spakovsky and Brad Schlozman, used the law enforcement machinery of the Department to achieve partisan gains.
Von Spakovsky also misconstrued the requirements of HAVA in a DOJ letter to Arizona election officials stating that those persons casting a provisional ballot had to produce identification, later withdrawing the letter as containing an inaccurate interpretation of the law. Before the letter was withdrawn, however, von Spakovsky attempted to pressure officials at the federal Election Administration Commission (EAC) into agreeing with his incorrect interpretation, even getting a staff member from U.S. Senator Kit Bond’s (R-MO) office to e-mail the EAC chair about the matter. When the EAC chair got wind of this, he wrote von Spakovsky a sharply worded email saying, “Is the email below from Jack Bartling [of Senator Bond’s staff] a product of some phone calls you have made regarding the AZ case ? Is it an attempt by you to put pressure on me—and the EAC ? If so, I do not appreciate it.” As if this wasn’t bad enough, von Spakovsky tried to get the EAC chair to withdraw a letter the EAC had sent to Arizona officials informing them that they had to accept federal voter registration forms without documented proof of citizenship. He proposed to the EAC chair a trade: DOJ would rescind its legally incorrect HAVA letter in exchange for the EAC withdrawing its legally correct HAVA letter. Such bargaining over federal law enforcement was unprecedented and criticized by the EAC chair.
What seems clear is that von Spakovsky is more obsessed with the issue of pursuing voter fraud for partisan gain than he is with protecting voting rights. In a speech at Georgetown University in 2004, von Spakovsky made it clear that the Department of Justice would focus its attention on guarding against voter fraud, and even went so far as to suggest that matters involving the rights of voters to participate in elections “might best be left to volunteers.” According to von Spakovsky, the best thing for elections is to station “poll watchers everywhere in the country throughout the whole election process.”
With all those volunteer poll watchers challenging each and every voter to make sure that they are casting a valid ballot, our elections would surely be a chaotic mess, long lines would likely ensue, and voters would become discouraged from voting or intimidated. Such a result would surely be unfortunate for our democracy, but it is very much in line with von Spakovsky’s career goals, which have consistently sought to make voting more difficult for voters like you and me.
Commissioner von Spakovsky’s overtly partisan actions disqualify him from confirmation to a post he never deserved to be recess-appointed to in the first place. His efforts to make it harder for Americans to vote are long standing. This is not a close call. The Senate Rules Committee should reject his nomination to the FEC.