Von Spakovsky Withdraws Nomination

In a major victory for those who believe in free and fair elections, Hans von Spakovsky – a Republican nominee for commissioner on the nation’s elections agency – has withdrawn his nomination. Von Spakovsky’s nomination has been so contentious and volatile that it shut down the Federal Election Commission (FEC) since January. Now that he is gone, Congress can begin moving ahead and quickly reinstate the agency as we enter the second half of the election season.

As four seats of the six-member FEC expired this year, Hans von Spakovsky was nominated to fill one of the Republican slots, along with three other nominees.

But in an unprecedented five-page, single-spaced letter sent to the Senate Rules Committee, several top former career officials in the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Voting Section complained about von Spakovsky’s service there as a political appointee, stating that he sought to undermine voting rights for partisan reasons. Von Spakovsky was instrumental in providing pre-clearance to a discriminatory voter ID requirement in Georgia. He also blocked a U.S. Attorney’s attempt to investigate a Minnesota rule that prevented American Indians who did not live on reservations from using tribal IDs as voter identification, and he supported Tom DeLay’s partisan redistricting in Texas. About half of the career lawyers in the Voting Section, some serving as long as 20 years in the office, left the Section under von Spakovsky’s watch.

Senate Democrats refused to seat von Spakovsky. Senate Republican

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to nominate anyone

else. The stalemate shut down the agency on January 1.

For McConnell, this was a “win-win” situation. He supported von

Spakovsky and his disenfranchisement campaign; and McConnell has openly

denounced important campaign finance laws. So, shutting down the FEC

was perfectly fine for him.

Until, of course, Republican presidential candidate John McCain

needed the FEC to certify $85 million in public funds for his general

election campaign in order to stay anywhere close to the fundraising

levels of the Democratic nominee. Without those funds, McCain would be

badly outspent by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Much

to the chagrin of McConnell, the FEC stalemate was shooting the

Republican party in the foot.

Finally, McConnell and President Bush relented and withdrew von

Spakovsky’s nomination. McConnell and Bush quickly replaced him with

Don McGahn, who once served as the ethics advisor and lawyer for former

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). DeLay was forced to resign from Congress

because of ethics scandals and money laundering.

McGahn also served as General Counsel to NRCC in October 2002, when

it plotted a scheme to bypass the new law banning soft money in federal

elections (the McCain-Feingold law). The scheme involved a transfer of

$1 million in soft money from the NRCC to the Leadership Forum, a front

group set up by House Republican leaders to spend soft money on the

2004 congressional elections, in violation of the new law. The $1

million was returned after the scheme became public.

In yet another brazen power play, McConnell and Bush also withdrew

the re-nomination of current Republican commissioner Dave Mason. Mason

had the gall earlier to express concern that John McCain may have run

afoul of federal election law when he appeared to secure a private loan

using the primary election public grant as collateral, then declined to

participate in the primary election public financing program.

So von Spakovsky may be gone, but he is being replaced with another

party hack. And now Dave Mason must also feel the McConnell/Bush

partisan wrath. Mason has been replaced with a Republican staffer of

the Senate Rules Committee, Matthew Peterson. The victory may indeed be

bitter sweet.

The victory does, however, show the need to fundamentally

restructure our federal elections agency. The current commission of

three Democrats and three Republicans is ripe for partisan gridlock and

partisan retributions. Any federal agency that must close its doors for

five months because of simple partisanship has no place enforcing our

election laws in a fair and impartial manner.

It is time to get a full six member FEC up and running so it can

manage the 2008 elections. After the election, it will be long past

time to restructure the agency into a responsible, accountable and

functioning entity.

One such legislative proposal is currently pending, sponsored

ironically by Sen. McCain. It would replace the FEC with a new

cabinet-level agency called the Federal Election Administration,

composed of a Chair and two additional members. Enforcement proceedings

would be conducted before impartial administrative law judges.

Managing our nation’s elections and campaign finance laws will never

be perfect, but the gridlock and partisanship that defines the FEC

continues to fail us. We deserve better than von Spakovsky, McGahn and

the crippled FEC.