Hearing on FEC Pick Could Add Fuel to Debate Over Justice Dept.

Hans A. von Spakovsky has been nominated to a regular six-year term with the Federal Election Commission.
Hans A. von Spakovsky has been nominated to a regular six-year term with the Federal Election Commission. (By Charlotte B. Teagle -- Atlanta Journal-constitution)
By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 8, 2007

As his critics see it, Hans A. von Spakovsky used every opportunity he had over four years in the Justice Department to make it difficult for voters -- poor, minority and Democratic -- to go to the polls. During his tenure, more than half of the career lawyers in the voting section left in protest.

Von Spakovsky now serves as a temporary commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, the bipartisan body that enforces campaign finance regulations. And a Senate Rules Committee hearing set for Wednesday on whether to confirm him for a six-year term could become a critical moment in the debate over political influence in the Justice Department.

Voting rights activists and campaign finance watchdogs are urging lawmakers to take a stand against von Spakovsky's nomination. "He failed to understand his role was not to be a representative of the Republican Party," said Joseph Rich, a former voting section chief who worked under von Spakovsky, who was then counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Von Spakovsky was appointed to the FEC in January 2006 during a congressional recess along with two Democrats. A fourth commissioner, a Republican, was renominated. All four will come before the Senate panel next week, but von Spakovsky is the most controversial. They all declined to comment before the hearing.

But shortly after his FEC appointment was announced, von Spakovsky suggested that he did not play a big role in policy decisions in the Justice Department's voting section. "I'm just a career lawyer who works in the front office of civil rights," he said at the time.

Yesterday, six former voting-section staffers, including two chiefs, joined with the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal think tank at New York University School of Law, to document what they said was von Spakovsky's efforts at the Justice Department to suppress the vote in low-income and minority communities -- which heavily leaned Democratic. The former staffers also went to Capitol Hill to brief the Senate committee's staff on his record.

The elements of that record that voting rights activists have found most objectionable include von Spakovsky's decision in 2005 to override the career staff in approving a Georgia law requiring that people present photo identification to vote. Career lawyers thought the provision would discriminate against black voters.

Around the same time, von Spakovsky wrote an anonymous article in a legal journal arguing that every voter should be required to show a photo ID. The Georgia photo ID statute was struck down by a court.

With von Spakovsky's backing, the Justice Department unsuccessfully sued to purge the voter rolls in Missouri. He also supported a mid-decade redistricting in Texas that a court rejected.

"He has devoted much of his legal career to suppressing minority voting rights, and he should not be rewarded with a six-year appointment to the Federal Election Commission," said J. Gerald Hebert, a longtime critic of von Spakovsky who once led the Justice Department's voting section and now serves as executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. "I think that Hans von Spakovsky's record demonstrates that he will use his office to elevate partisan concerns among legitimate law enforcement concerns."

Activists in Washington's voting rights lobby have been pushing Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to block von Spakovsky's nomination, but they said politics are getting in the way. One of the Democratic commissioners up for confirmation, Steven Walther, is a Reno lawyer close to Reid. If Reid were to intervene against von Spakovsky, Republicans could fight Walther's nomination, the activists said. They added that they hope Reid would work against von Spakovsky, despite the potential peril to Walther.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, said the senator will wait until after the hearing to decide how to proceed.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company