Good Tidings for the F.E.C.
By Maggie Barron
There's new reason to celebrate this holiday season, and it comes from an unlikely source of good tidings: the Senate floor. News has arrived last week that Hans von Spakovsky, the Ebenezer Scrooge of election administration, will no longer be a member of the Federal Elections Commission.
Von Spakovsky had so far avoided the confirmation process, with a Bush recess appointment in January 2006 shoe-horning him into the F.E.C. despite vocal objections from civil rights groups. But as his term waned, von Spakovsky became a poster boy for the blatant politicization of the federal agencies in charge of protecting voters' rights.
Putting von Spakovsky in charge of administering elections would have been like putting Scrooge in charge of a holiday toy drive. In his role at the F.E.C. and as Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division before that, von Spakovsky repeatedly used his office to block voters and made decisions that put his impartiality in question. He was against providing "fail safe" provisional ballots to voters, even though federal law demanded it. He also tried to keep new voters off the rolls if their information did not perfectly match other government databases. This effectively disenfranchised voters whose information was incorrect because of bureaucratic typos. He took the bizarre step of writing an anonymous law review article touting the benefits of restrictive photo identification requirements for voters, when at the same time he was supposed to be impartially reviewing such laws on behalf of the Justice Department. He also used Justice Department resources to root out fictional cases of voter fraud, hoping that such fears would help justify more restrictive voting laws.
But wait, isn't the F.E.C. supposed to protect voters from election laws that might unduly hinder them from voting?
"Humbug!" von Spakovsky said.
In October, von Spakovsky's nomination left the Senate Rules Committee with no recommendation, a clear vote of no confidence in his ability and desire to administer the nation's election laws fairly and without partisanship. Yet the Bush administration has continued to pursue his appointment until yesterday, even risking bringing the F.E.C. to a standstill during the an election year to get him through.
The defeat of von Spakovsky sends a clear message to those who would let partisan hacks run the most important pieces of machinery in our democracy. If there's anything nice to say about a bitter partisan standoff, it's that von Spakovsky's drawn-out confirmation process has helped bring to light a deliberate strategy to restrict voter turnout, not just for the hell of it, but specifically to favor candidates of a certain political party. With the dedicated efforts of Bush appointees like von Spakovsky and Alberto Gonzales, it is now clear how the F.E.C. and the Justice Department have been twisted beyond recognition into tools of voter suppression and partisan election shenanigans.
In the future, we hope F.E.C. nominees will be so infused with the spirit of participatory democracy that they will work to ensure that every eligible voter can vote. In the end, even Scrooge learned what the Christmas spirit was all about. Fortunately, we no longer have to worry about whether or not von Spakovsky will have a similar change of heart.
Maggie Barron is the Communications Associate at the Brennan Center for Justice.