The Trump administration made several aggressive moves on Thursday toward turning the president’s preoccupation with voter fraud into official government policy. First, Trump’s commission on “election integrity”—a group led by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach—sent letters to election officials in every state demanding extremely detailed information about registered voters, including “addresses, dates of birth, political party [and the] last four digits of social security number if available.” Second, in what’s being seen as a prelude to litigation aimed at purging voter rolls, the Department of Justice requested that states answer questions about what steps they’ve taken to comply with the National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to maintain accurate voter lists by removing people who are ineligible or dead.
For civil rights leaders who spent the George W. Bush years fighting against Republican-led efforts to make it harder for people to vote, these developments were deeply worrying on their own. But the Trump administration wasn’t done: On Thursday night, the White House announced it was adding Hans von Spakovsky to the Pence-Kobach commission.
Von Spakovsky has done more than anyone else to bring unfounded fears about voter fraud into the mainstream of Republican discourse. A former member of the Federal Election Commission, Von Spakovsky served under Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft as the de facto head of the voting section in the Justice Department’s civil rights division. In that capacity, he distinguished himself as an exceptionally zealous believer in the idea that widespread voter fraud exists and must be dealt with urgently through aggressive purging of voter rolls and strict voter ID laws.
Von Spakovsky’s priorities at DOJ reflected his commitment to that idea. Among other things, he moved to overrule career attorneys who had determined that a Texas redistricting plan discriminated against minority voters, pushed for Georgia to be granted pre-clearance for a new voter ID law that was later declared unconstitutional, and shut down an investigation into a policy in Minnesota that prohibited Native Americans living on reservations from using tribal ID cards as voter identification. He also tried to pressure the Republican vice chairman of the Election Assistance Commission—a bipartisan agency created in the wake of the 2000 election to set certain voter registration standards—into approving an Arizona law requiring people to present proof of citizenship when registering to vote. The vice chairman, Paul DeGregorio, later told investigators that “too many” of von Spakovsky’s decisions were “clouded by his partisan thinking.”
Speaking to the New Yorker in 2012, Congressman John Lewis summed up von Spakovsky this way:
I don’t know if it’s something in the water he’s been drinking … but over the years he’s been hellbent to make it more difficult—always, always—for people to vote. It’s like he goes to bed dreaming about this, and gets up in the morning wondering, What can I do today to make it more difficult for people to vote? When you pull back the covers, peel back the onion, he’s the one who’s gotten the Republican legislatures, and the Republican Party, to go along with this—even though there is no voter fraud to speak of. He’s trying to create a cure where there is no sickness.
In March, von Spakovsky—who has been a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation since 2008—signed an open letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions laying out a vision for how the Department of Justice should change now that reasonable people are in charge. The letter suggested that the DOJ must keep its eyes open to the possibility that people of all races—not just minorities—are having their voting rights violated. “Our nation is changing,” the signatories of the letter declared. “The mosaic image of America is growing richer in color and detail as each decade passes. For these reasons, the American people deserve a Division that seeks to represent and protect all citizens.”
They continued, obliquely but pointedly: “Together, we have witnessed longstanding conventions held from the mid-20th century prove outmoded in recent years and discovered new fronts in need of protection where civil rights are concerned—with particular respect to voting.”
Back in March, Samuel Bagenstos, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School who served in the civil rights division during the Obama administration, told me that the letter was an unambiguous call for voter suppression. “This would take us back to some pretty dark days,” Bagenstos said. Less than two months later, the White House established the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity and placed Kobach—one of the letter’s most prominent signatories—in charge.
“I was waiting to see if they would puts Hans on this thing,” said Joseph Rich, who was nominally the head of the voting section of the civil rights division while von Spakovsky ran it. “He’s the logical guy.”
Rich, who now works at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, went on: “This commission is based on a lie. There’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and you have a president lying about 3 to 5 million people voting illegally. It’s a lie. It’s a goddamn lie.”