Jun 10 / Steven Rosenfeld

Latest Advice from Conservatives: Ignore the Justice Department on Voting Rights

There is an art in politics to not over-reaching and not over-reacting. But the latest salvo by one of the best-known conservative voting rights activists at his former workplace—the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, which enforces federal voting rights law—crosses a new line: urging states to ignore the DOJ on voting rights.

“Judges, lawyers, and state and local officials should realize that when they are faced with claims asserted by the Civil Rights Division in the future, they have every reason to doubt the credibility and validity of the allegations,” said National Review commentator, Hans von Spakovsky, former Federal Election Commissioner from 2006 to 2008, and DOJ Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights before that. “All too often, the claims may be the byproduct of the bias, leftist ideology, and hard-core partisanship that drive so many of the lawyers and support staff who work there.”

Voting rights advocates who believe in extending the franchise to all eligible Americans, as opposed to those who will only support one party, will note the irony here. Hans von Spakovsky played a leading role in politicizing the Justice Department under the Bush Adminstration to serve a partisan agenda. His tenure at DOJ was characterized by the wholesale ignoring of vast sections of federal voting rights law, while enforcement priorities were re-focused on combating illusory threats of widespread voter registration fraud—which never materialized as actual prosecutions based on facts. U.S. attorneys who did not bring these cases were fired (leading to the U.S. Attorneygate scandal), and many career DOJ civil rights attorneys resigned in disgust. (You can read one of the letters former DOJ attorneys wrote opposing his nomination to the FEC here.)

“During the Bush years, there were at least some checks and a partial balance on this out-of-control bureaucracy,” von Spakovsky writes. “Such evenhandedness runs directly contrary to the unofficial enforcement directives issued by the Obama political appointees who currently run the division.”

Evenhandedness? Just examine this list of prosecutions from the DOJ website, with an eye to what federal statutes saw no action during the previous administration. Whole sections of the Voting Rights Act were all-but ignored; cases brought in relation to the National Voter Registration Act were mostly for states to purge voter lists, while the DOJ refused to investigate the failures of many states to offer voter registration at public assistance agencies as required by that law; and the list goes on.

The truth is the Obama Administration has barely begun to take action to protect federal voting rights, but the politics of this preemptive strike are transparent enough: von Spakovsky and his bedfellows–who have made it clear they do not want all eligible Americans to vote-–are afraid that long-neglected voting rights may now be enforced. Let us hope that they are right about that.

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