From pursuing voter fraud in the George W. Bush Justice Department to policing polling places on the Fairfax County Electoral Board, Hans von Spakovsky has been a national lightning rod on the issue of voter integrity.
Now that President Trump has named the Virginia lawyer to the new Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, the man the New Yorker magazine called the source of “the voter-fraud myth” has perhaps his greatest chance to influence Americans’ access to the polls.
Von Spakovsky, 58, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in an interview Friday that he does not enter this role with the assumption that voter fraud is a nationwide epidemic.
“I think the answer to that is what we hope to find out,” he said. “What I would say is that I think it’s a danger to the way our democratic system works anytime people are either kept out of the polls or their vote is stolen through fraud.”
But his appointment has drawn deep skepticism from many who view the commission itself as a chilling effort to control the voting process in states.
“I think there are a number of people who have been active in promoting false and exaggerated claims of voter fraud and using that as a pretext to argue for stricter voting and registration rules,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine. “And von Spakovsky’s at the top of the list.”
After von Spakovsky’s appointment was announced Thursday, Hasen wrote on his blog that it was “a big middle finger” from Trump to people “who are serious about fixing problems with our elections.”
Over the years, von Spakovsky has been accused of masterminding widespread efforts to suppress voting by marginalized populations, particularly African Americans and immigrants, who tend to vote for Democrats.
Von Spakovsky argued against renewing the Voting Rights Act while serving in Bush’s Justice Department. Bush later named him to the Federal Election Commission with a recess appointment, but so many senators objected that von Spakovsky eventually withdrew.
Similarly, after he served as vice chairman of the three-member Fairfax County Electoral Board between 2010 and 2012, Democrats objected to his reappointment. Local judges, who name the panel based on recommendations from the party of the current governor — who at the time was Republican Robert F. McDonnell — took the unusual step of not renewing von Spakovsky’s appointment.
“The problem with him is that his default position was always to make it harder for people to vote,” said John Farrell, who was general counsel to the Fairfax Democratic Committee and petitioned the judges not to reappoint von Spakovsky.
He said that von Spakovsky had stopped the League of Women Voters from putting free, nonpartisan election guides in the county elections office and that he voted against providing election materials in Spanish.
“ ‘Controversial’ would be a generous description of his nature,” Farrell said. “He’s a voter-suppression advocate, and he can’t deny that with a straight face.”
Of course, von Spakovsky does deny that. He said Fairfax Democrats didn’t like it when he pursued legal action against some 300 residents who indicated on driver’s license applications that they were noncitizens, even though they were registered to vote.
That kind of fraud — though nothing ever came of the Fairfax charges — is what von Spakovsky has been trying to quantify at the Heritage Foundation and will pursue with Trump’s commission, he said.
“We’re supposed to take a look at and investigate the state of the election process in America,” he said. “I believe that means looking at everything from the voter registration process to the election process itself — voting, etc. — to see whether there are any problems that need to be fixed.”
In many ways, he said, the commission’s task will be to update the work done in 2012 by the Pew Center on the States, which found evidence that nearly 2 million dead people nationwide were still on voting rolls.
The commission’s request for information from states — which was immediately rejected by some governors, including Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe (D) — was simply a research query, like that sent out by Pew, von Spakovsky said.
He has spent his career on such efforts because of his upbringing, he said. “I’m a first-generation American. My mother grew up in Nazi Germany. My father was Russian — he fought the communists in his homeland and fought them in his adopted country of Yugoslavia. I grew up in a household where I was told just how precious our democracy was here and just how fortunate we are to have it.”
When he was a boy, he said, his parents always took him along with them to vote. “Basically it imbued in me the belief that I had a duty to vote and that if I didn’t vote, I was betraying all the people in countries around the world who can’t do that. It just gave me a real interest in working to make sure we have a fair process.”
Brian Schoeneman, a Republican who replaced von Spakovsky on the Fairfax electoral board, said he is uniquely qualified for the national commission. “He knows everything there is to know about the law,” said Schoeneman, who edits the Bearing Drift conservative blog.
He said von Spakovsky is not someone who sees massive fraud everywhere he looks. While “there is a belief in my party that it is endemic and everywhere, that’s not true,” Schoeneman said. “It is by no means endemic, and by no means as bad as the president claims it is.”
“I think Hans has struck a happy medium. . . . I know he gets a lot of criticism, but that’s just the typical demonization of anybody who wants to argue that voter fraud is an issue.”