Hans von Spakovsky, an embattled Republican nominee to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), yesterday told a Senate panel that his support of laws requiring voters to show photo identification and other election safeguards are being misconstrued as plots to disenfranchise black Democratic voters.
“I think voter ID is a good idea,” he said at a Rules and Administration Committee hearing on his and three other nominations to the FEC. “I also believe very strongly that every eligible voter needs to be able to access the ballot box.”
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, a member of the rules panel, praised Mr. von Spakovsky’s sentiment but said it was “inconsistent” with his actions as counsel at the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division from 2003 through 2005.
Mr. von Spakovsky, 48, who has been serving on the FEC board for 18 months as a recess appointment by President Bush, said he did not make final decisions on civil rights issues, such as the much-maligned decision supporting a Georgia photo-ID law that was criticized as disenfranchising black voters.
“The problem with that is, I was not the decision-maker in the front office of the Civil Rights Division,” Mr. von Spakovsky said, adding that he did provide advice on the ruling.
“I believe they made the correct decision,” he said.
He noted that Congress endorsed voter-ID requirements in the Help America Vote Act and called for frequent scrutiny of voter rolls — another position for which Mr. von Spakovsky has come under fire — in the Voting Rights Act.
Mr. Bush has nominated Mr. von Spakovsky — a first-generation American whose parents fled Nazi Germany and communist Russia — to a six-year term expiring in 2011 that requires Senate approval, which the president bypassed to give the one-time Bush campaign worker his temporary tenure on the commission.
“My childhood was full of stories from my parents of what life was like in a dictatorship, and from that we learned to appreciate how lucky we were to be living in this democracy that all of us call home,” he told the committee. “I have understood from a very early age how important it is to safeguard not just our right to vote, but our ability to participate in the political process.”
The other nominees are Republican David Mason of Virginia and Democrats Robert D. Lenhard of Maryland and Steven T. Walther of Nevada. All are currently serving in temporary posts on the commission.
Mr. von Spakovsky is the only nominee facing a confirmation fight — mostly owing to the political firestorm over suspected politicization of the Justice Department.
Six former career lawyers who worked under Mr. von Spakovsky in the civil rights office petitioned the committee to reject their former boss because he injected what they called “partisan political factors into decision-making … and into the hiring process.”
“What has happened, I think, is you have become a lightning rod for problems that have been inherent in American voting,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee.
She asked Mr. von Spakovsky why so many former colleagues would opposed him. “They clearly don’t believe you belong on this commission,” she said.
He said that while he did not make final decisions, he was the one who delivered the verdict to the career lawyers. “The face they would see of the front office is me. … They also assumed I was the one who made the decisions,” he said.
He said he did not play a role in hiring or firing at the department.
Detractors also fault Mr. von Spakovsky for advocating that felons should be purged from voter rolls, a practice criticized in Florida for disenfranchising some black voters in the 2000 presidential election.
The FEC enforces campaign-finance laws, including disclosing campaign-finance data, policing contributions and overseeing public funding of presidential elections. It is an independent regulatory agency made up of six members appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. By law, no more than three members can be of the same political party and at least four votes are required for commission action.
Mrs. Feinstein promised a committee vote soon on the nominations. The committee’s nine Republicans will try to force a vote on the nominees as a group.