For the dignity of our democracy

The American people are watching their political leaders very closely. They do not have intelligence reports to guide their thinking or pollsters to predict the direction of majority opinion, but they are experiencing a fundamental queasiness about business as usual in Washington. They are looking for leadership. They want this Congress to chart a new course, to take some bold steps away from partiality, partisanship and weak conciliation. They are yearning for a reformation of the democratic process that invigorates and restores their faith in this representative government.

They realize our legislature is governed by consensus and that majority rule necessitates negotiation and compromise. But in the past few years they have seen some of the cornerstones of our democracy bargained away to satisfy political expedience and unbridled ambition. They see too many fundamental components of our freedom hanging in the balance — the right to lawful imprisonment, the right to privacy free from government surveillance, the right to protest, and even the right to free and fair elections. They are asking themselves: Who will stand up for what is good, what is fair, and what is right?

Members of the Senate Rules Committee should be searching their consciences to answer that question as they review the nomination of Hans von Spakovsky to the Federal Election Commission, the agency that regulates campaign finance of all federal elections. Von Spakovsky is a Bush recess appointee who must pass Senate scrutiny in order to be reauthorized as a commissioner.

In Georgia, we know him quite well. From 2001 to 2005, he was counsel and assistant attorney general for civil rights in a Justice Department led by Alberto Gonzales and since characterized by political appointees who pressured career attorneys to change their evaluation of voting rights cases to suit political objectives. Von Spakovsky, one of those appointees, managed to overrule career attorneys who questioned whether a Georgia voter identification law was discriminatory and violated the Voting Rights Act. After the law was cleared by von Spakovsky’s unit, a federal judge blocked its implementation in the 2004 election, declaring it akin to a modern-day poll tax that disenfranchised thousands of rural, elderly, disabled and minority voters in the state. Many who do not live in or near a major city in Georgia cannot easily reach state government offices that can issue ID or cannot afford to pay the fee necessary to get an ID, effectively barring them from voting. Von Spakovsky also sped clearance of a similar photo ID law in Arizona and for approval of former Majority Leader Tom Delay’s (R) redistricting plan in Texas, which was subsequently ruled in violation of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Further, a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice reveals that von Spakovsky was principally responsible for preventing the Justice Department from investigating allegations of voter discrimination against Native Americans in Minnesota. In fact, during Spakovsky’s tenure, no voting discrimination actions were ever brought on behalf of Native Americans or African Americans.

Von Spakovsky’s obstruction of civil rights enforcements led to the demoralization of the Civil Rights Division staff, and a massive exodus of division attorneys ensued, robbing the federal government of indispensable expertise in civil rights law and invaluable institutional memory. It is hard to understand how such a record could withstand Senate scrutiny. Some have said that since von Spakovsky is only one member of a five-member board, what harm can he do? Personally, we would hate to find out. The harm he has already done to the federal elections process in some states will take time, and in some instances, litigation and legislative action, to repair.

But the issue of von Spakovsky’s nomination really reaches beyond potential damage. The most fundamental question senators have to address is one of integrity. We think most Americans believe there should be some standards that guide an appointment to federal service, including a respect for the law that supersedes political allegiance and partisanship. An appointee should have an appreciation for a history of American sacrifice by citizens who gave their very lives to win rights government officials are mandated to defend. And he should have a sense that serving the principles of our democracy helps this nation meet its highest destiny, a cause greater than political expedience.

Frederick Douglass once said, “Fealty to party has no claims against fidelity to truth.” The truth is that Hans von Spakovsky has not met the standard for federal appointment. His record reveals downright contempt for the law and the voting rights of Americans he is supposed to defend. Who will defend the integrity of the federal appointment process? If not, us then who? If not now, then when? We appeal to our colleagues to take a stand for the dignity of our democracy and oppose the nomination of Hans von Spakovsky to the FEC.