Efforts to stop `voter fraud' may have curbed legitimate voting

McClatchy NewspapersMay 20, 2007 

WASHINGTON—During four years as a Justice Department civil rights lawyer, Hans von Spakovsky went so far in a crusade against voter fraud as to warn of its dangers under a pseudonym in a law journal article.

Writing as "Publius," von Spakovsky contended that every voter should be required to produce a photo-identification card and that there was "no evidence" that such restrictions burden minority voters disproportionately.

Now, amid a scandal over politicization of the Justice Department, Congress is beginning to examine allegations that von Spakovsky was a key player in a Republican campaign to hang onto power in Washington by suppressing the votes of minority voters.

"Mr. von Spakovsky was central to the administration's pursuit of strategies that had the effect of suppressing the minority vote," charged Joseph Rich, a former Justice Department voting rights chief who worked under him.

He and other former career department lawyers say that von Spakovsky steered the agency toward voting rights policies not seen before, pushing to curb minor instances of election fraud by imposing sweeping restrictions that would make it harder, not easier, for Democratic-leaning poor and minority voters to cast ballots.

In interviews, current and former federal officials and civil rights leaders told McClatchy Newspapers that von Spakovsky:

_Sped approval of tougher voter ID laws in Georgia and Arizona in 2005, joining decisions to override career lawyers who believed that Georgia's law would restrict voting by poor blacks and who felt that more analysis was needed on the Arizona law's impact on Native Americans and Latinos.

_Tried to influence the federal Election Assistance Commission's research into the dimensions of voter fraud nationally and the impact of restrictive voter ID laws—research that could undermine a vote-suppression agenda.

_Allegedly engineered the ouster of the commission's chairman, Paul DiGregorio, whom von Spakovsky considered insufficiently partisan.

Von Spakovsky, who declined to comment on these allegations, is among more than a dozen present and former Justice Department officials drawing congressional scrutiny over the administration's alleged use of the nation's chief law enforcement agency for partisan purposes.

Congressional committees investigating the firing last year of nine U.S. attorneys are looking into allegations that prosecutors nationwide were urged to pursue voter fraud to build a basis for tougher ID laws.

Von Spakovsky, who had been a longtime voting rights activist and elections official in Georgia before serving at Justice, accepted a presidential recess appointment to a Republican slot on the Federal Election Commission in December 2005. He is scheduled to appear at a June 13 confirmation hearing before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

The House Administration Committee is also inquiring into von Spakovsky's communications with the Election Assistance Commission, a tiny agency that implemented a 2002 election reform law and serves as a national election information clearinghouse.

The bipartisan, four-member commission stirred a political tempest last year when it delayed the release of voter fraud and voter ID law studies, saying that more research was needed. A House panel revealed last month that the fraud study's central finding—that there was little evidence of widespread voter fraud—had been toned down to say that "a great deal of debate" surrounded the subject.

Commissioners rejected as flawed the second study's finding that voter ID laws tend to suppress turnout, especially among Latinos, and ordered more research.

Rich said that von Spakovsky usurped his seat on a commission advisory panel in 2004, although the law creating the panel allocated that spot for the Voting Rights Section chief "or his designee." Rich said he was not consulted.

After the commission hired both liberal and conservative consultants to work on the studies in 2005, e-mails show that von Spakovsky tried to persuade panel members that the research was flawed.

In an Aug. 18, 2005, e-mail to Chairman DiGregorio, he objected strenuously to a contract award for the ID study to researchers at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law, who were teaming with a group at Rutgers University.

Von Spakovsky wrote that Daniel Tokaji, the associate director of Moritz' election program, was "an outspoken opponent of voter identification requirements" and that those "pre-existing notions" should disqualify him from federal funding for impartial research.

The criticism was ironic coming from von Spakovsky, who a few months earlier had written the anonymous article for the Texas Review of Law and Politics, in which he called voter fraud a problem of importance equal to racial discrimination at the polls. Von Spakovsky acknowledged writing the article after joining the FEC.

Months after its publication, he participated in the department's review of Georgia's photo ID law, as required under the 1965 Voting Rights Act for election laws passed in 16 Southern states. After the department approved it, a federal judge struck it down as akin to a Jim Crow-era poll tax on minority voters.

Rich called von Spakovsky's failure to withdraw from the case "especially disturbing, given the clear ethical concerns" over his prior work as a Georgia elections official and the bias in his article.

Von Spakovsky's tone toward DiGregorio grew increasingly harsh in 2005 as the chairman refused to take partisan stands, said two people close to the commission who declined to be identified because of the matter's sensitivity.

Their differences seemed to come to a head last year over two issues raised by Arizona's Republican secretary of state, Janice Brewer, who was implementing the toughest state voter identification law in the nation. In April 2005, the Justice Department erroneously advised her that Arizona did not need to offer a provisional ballot to those lacking proof of citizenship.

E-mails suggest that von Spakovsky contacted an aide to Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond, who inquired of DiGregorio whether the commission was "seriously considering taking a position against" the department on the provisional ballot question.

DiGregorio sent a testy message asking von Spakovsky if the note from Capitol Hill was "an attempt by you to put pressure on me."

"If so, I do not appreciate it," he wrote.

The next day, von Spakovsky wrote DiGregorio that he thought they "had a deal" under which the department would reconsider its position on provisional ballots if the commission would allow Arizona to modify the federal voter registration form to require proof of citizenship.

"I do not agree to `deals,' especially when it comes to interpretation of the law," DiGregorio replied.

Last September, the White House replaced DiGregorio with Caroline Hunter, a former deputy counsel to the Republican National Committee. DiGregorio confided to associates that he was told that von Spakovsky influenced the White House's decision not to reappoint him, said the two people close to the panel.

Asked about his ouster, DiGregorio said only that he "was aware that Mr. von Spakovsky was not pleased with the bipartisan approaches that I took."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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