To those who closely follow the voter ID wars, Hans von Spakovsky is a household name, one of the nation’s leading crusaders against voter fraud, and also one of its more controversial. Days before the 2012 election, The New Yorker profiled him as “the man who has stoked fear about imposters at the poll.”
So it was news that von Spakovsky, a Republican lawyer and scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, failed to get a second term on the electoral board of Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest county, despite being the top choice of the county’s Republican Party.
It was the kind of local personnel change that normally wouldn’t get much attention — except that von Spakovsky has become something of a national lightning rod.
The panel of county circuit court judges who approve the political parties’ nominees to the board voted to replace von Spakovsky with another Republican lawyer, Brian Schoeneman. County Democrats had accused von Spakovsky of being hyperpartisan and a master at voter suppression tactics, charges that have trailed him for years.
In an email to my request for reaction to his judicial decision, von Spakovsky, whose term ends Feb. 28, wrote:
“The ‘partisanship’ claim is disproved by a very simple, uncontested fact, which is reflected in the minutes of the January 10, 2013, meeting of the Board.
“I asked our clerk in December to total up all of the votes taken by the Election Board since Seth Harp, the Democratic appointee to the Board, took office. There were 224 votes taken during that time period. The Board voted 2-1 on only three issues. All remaining votes were unanimous.
“It is a bit much to claim we (or I) acted in a partisan manner on the Board when the Democratic member voted with me in 99% of all of the votes of the Board.
“But then, a majority of the judges who made this decision are Democratic appointees and they clearly made a purely partisan, political decision. They apparently don’t like someone who has stood up for the integrity of the election process as I have.”
According to Jay McConville, chairman of the county’s Republican Party, it was the first time to his knowledge or that of those he consulted that the county’s judges rejected one of the two major political parties’ top choices to the electoral board. In an interview with me, he said:
“In my opinion it was the unprecedented, unnecessary and really unacceptable protest by the Fairfax County Democrats. And for reasons that are very hard to understand other than just being partisan gamesmanship. They’ve broken a longstanding tradition honestly because they want to show that they can. And that’s really unfortunate.
“… What we care about in the Republican Party is defending the vote and free elections where qualified folks can vote. And make sure it runs well. Hans is an expert on that and he should be on the board.”
Fairfax County Democrats agree that the circumstances surrounding von Spakovsky were unprecedented, though they put their emphasis not on how he is leaving the board but rather how he arrived.
Bettina Lawson, an official, said:
“What was unprecedented, actually, was the original nomination of the Fairfax County Republican Party of Hans von Spakovsky. He has a national reputation for efforts to suppress the vote with his various positions on voter identification and creating a lot of fear about voter fraud. And putting a person like that on the Fairfax Electoral Board was the original problem.
“What we did in the last three years was experience the results of that. That’s why the Fairfax Democratic committee took the step of sending the letter to the judges to say, we want you to know that this man has this reputation. While he has been on our electoral board he’s continued these efforts.”
Von Spakovsky pushed successfully to end the practice of providing multilingual voting information in the voter registrar’s office, Lawson said, a problem in a county with considerable diversity. He also succeeded in removing from the registrar’s office nonpartisan informational material provided by the League of Women Voters that the county had long been made available to voters.
These and other actions made Democrats seek to permanently suppress von Spakovsky’s vote on the board by getting him kicked off.
Von Spakovsky was a George W. Bush appointee to the Federal Elections Commission. But it was von Spakovsky’s work before that as a Justice Department political appointee that drew the praise of voter ID proponents and ire of those opposed to the controversial laws.
As NPR’s Peter Overby reported in 2007 at the time of von Spakovsky’s confirmation hearing to the FEC, von Spakovsky critics accused him of, among other things, being overly partisan:
“In 2003, he worked on a redistricting plan from Texas. Tom Delay, then the most powerful Republican in Congress, drew the plan to add Republicans to the state’s Congressional delegation. Career lawyers in the Justice Department said it shouldn’t be approved. Von Spakovsky and other politicos thought it should be, and it was.
” … Here are other notable cases, too. In 2005, Justice reviewed a voter identification law from Georgia. Critics said it discriminated against poor people who would have the hardest time getting photo IDs. Von Spakovsky had published a law review article arguing strongly for voter ID laws, but he’d used a pseudonym so no one connected him to it. He oversaw the review of the Georgia case at Justice and once again he overruled the career lawyers. After that career employees say there was a purge.
“… Von Spakovsky has drawn other criticism as well. At the Federal Election Commission, he declared that a proposal to regulate political advertising was equivalent to the Alien and Sedition Acts, laws that were enacted in 1798 in an effort to silence attacks on President John Adams. Proponents of stronger campaign finance regulation questioned his commitment to enforcing policies that he so clearly opposes. Von Spakovsky declined to be interviewed for this piece.”