Rock the vote

For five years the Bush administration has warned the nation of a voter-fraud epidemic. Yet study after study of the alleged crisis has come up wanting. Instead, it appears that Bush appointees inside the Justice Department may be the ones undermining democracy as bogus claims of fraud are used to fuel a movement toward potentially discriminatory voter-ID laws.

A 2006 study commissioned by the Federal Assistance Commission reported widespread agreement that there is little polling-place fraud. Shortly after the report’s release, the FAC cryptically altered the report to say, “There is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud.” Another study, The Politics of Voter Fraud, released by Columbia political-science professor Lorraine C. Minnite, also found that voter fraud is extremely rare. Minnite reported that only 24 people were convicted of or pled guilty to illegal voting at the federal level between 2002 and 2005.

Despite the lack of evidence, many Republican activists continue pursuing voter fraud aggressively, often over the objection of Democrats, who claim Republicans are using the issue as an excuse to implement voter ID laws that will suppress voter turnout among minorities. The failed Federal Election Integrity Act of 2006 would have required voters to present a photo ID in federal elections starting in November 2008. The bill passed in the House in September 2006, but died in the Senate. Texas House Bill 218 would have required voters to present one form of photo identification, or two forms of non-photo identification, but Senate Democrats blocked it on May 23. The seven states that currently request photo ID at the polls have adopted the requirements within the past few years.

There have been 19 indictments for voter fraud in Texas since 2003. Nine of those were for illegally processing the ballot of another with their consent. John Gibbs, spokesperson for the HB 218 author Representative Betty Brown, said the reason there isn’t a large number of indictments for people impersonating others at the polls is that there is no way to catch people.

“I think the reason they want to make it an issue is it’s a distraction,” said U.S. Representative Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas. “It will distract us from the true abuses that are going on out there. You start getting into the stringent ID requirements, the registration requirements — it is to suppress turnout from a voting population the Republicans believe would lead toward the Democratic candidate.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, which is responsible for protecting voting rights and enforcing federal statutes prohibiting discrimination, is now being investigated for using voter-fraud prosecutions to pursue a partisan agenda. The saga came to light in 2006 with the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys, many of whom claimed they were fired for not pursuing voter-fraud prosecutions aggressively enough. The firings spawned ongoing investigations into U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s role, and whether Bush Administration officials violated civil-service rules by favoring Republicans when hiring lawyers in the Civil Rights Division.

On July 25, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., released a report detailing specific ways that several administration officials may have broken the law during the attorneys’ firings. Some of the attorneys were improperly selected for firing because of their handling of voter-fraud allegations, public-corruption cases or other cases that could affect close elections, says the report. On July 26, Democratic senators called for an independent special counsel to investigate whether Gonzales committed perjury during his testimony concerning his role in the removal and replacement of U.S. attorneys.

“The recent hearings that we have had definitely point out that there were instructions to the U.S. attorneys to make voter fraud the blue-plate special, and what they were coming back with was, we don’t have any basis to have our resources expended and directed in that fashion because it does not exist appreciably,” Representative Gonzalez said.

One of the most insightful glimpses of the inner workings of the Civil Rights Division came from former appointee Hans von Spakovsky, who has been nominated to serve on the Federal Election Commission. Just days before his June 13 confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Rules and Regulations, committee members received a letter written by six former career attorneys of the Civil Rights Division, detailing specific incidences of Spakovsky’s partisan decision-making while he served as voting counsel to the assistant attorney general of the division from 2003 to 2005. The letter accuses Spakovsky of assuming the role of de-facto voting section chief, replacing the career section chief in most of his statutory responsibilities, and overruling the recommendations of career staff attorneys on several matters affecting minority voting rights.

The majority of the hearing focused on Spakovsky’s handlings of voter-ID legislation and his reasons for going against career staff recommendations not to clear the Georgia Voter ID law and the Texas-redistricting plan. In 2003, Spakovsky approved former House majority leader Tom DeLay’s infamous Texas redistricting plan, despite a unanimous recommendation by DOJ career staff that the plan be rejected because it would harm the voting strength of racial and ethnic minority voters. Subsequently, the Supreme Court struck down part of the plan involving District 23 under Section Two of the Voting Rights Act, saying it would strip Latinos of the ability to elect their own candidates.

Spakovsky may not be a voting-rights advocate, but he is a voter-fraud hawk. The letter from the former DOJ attorneys noted that prior to coming to the Civil Rights Division, Spakovsky had vigorously advocated the need to combat voter fraud through restrictive voter identification laws. Despite his partisan ties in his home state of Georgia, he was assigned the task of managing the Georgia ID case by the front office, where he advocated for the controversial ID law that was later overturned in court for being too similar to the old poll taxes.

Two months prior to the Georgia ID law’s passage Spakovsky had published an article in the Texas Review of Law and Politics under the pseudonym “Publius,” advocating for restrictive identification laws. This resulted in an ethics complaint filed against him by the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

“I can’t think of anybody who could be appointed to the Federal Election Commission who has the potential to undermine democracy more than Hans von Spakovsky,” said civil-rights attorney Gerald Hebert, who met Spakovksy during the Texas redistricting fiasco.

Considering all of the skeletons falling out of the DOJ’s closet lately, it’s hard not to believe that the allegations of attempted minority and Democratic voter suppression against Spakovsky don’t offer a crucial peek into a system rife with partisanship. At the very least, you might think rational heads would agree with Committee Chair Senator Diane Feinstein, who commented, “It is really problematic for this body to vote for someone with this letter on the record.”

But you would be wrong.

“Everything up here is so political in nature,” says Representative Gonzalez. “On the Senate side, when there is a Democratic appointee and a Republican appointee, usually if the Democrats were to oppose the Republican on decent grounds and block his nomination, the Republicans would then block the Democratic choice without giving any real reasons.”

Traditionally, FEC nominees are voted on as a package deal. Senator Feinstein’s office said the committee is expected to vote in September, but no definite timeline has been set. 

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