The Blog

Obama Plays the Race Card

Leading the charge against Hans von Spakovsky.

11:00 PM, Nov 14, 2007 • By EDWARD BLUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

WHEN YOU'RE TEN points behind in the polls, less than two months away from the first presidential primaries, and African American Democrats are divided between you and the front-runner, what is the easiest way to narrow that gap?


Apparently, if you're Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill), you play the race card.


And that's exactly what he's done with his latest salvo against Hans von Spakovsky, the Bush administration's nominee to the Federal Election Commission. Recently, Sen. Obama published an inflammatory essay in the Chicago Defender, a weekly newspaper serving Chicago's black community, blasting von Spakovsky for undermining voting rights and creating roadblocks for minority voters.


Unless you follow election law issues, you probably have not heard of von Spakovsky until recently. He has served without any controversy on the FEC since January 2006 as a recess appointee. As former Commissioner Bradley Smith and other observers have noted, his FEC career has "been tremendously successful." But it's not his work on the FEC that has Sen. Obama and others on the left so lathered up, but rather, his prior tenure as a career lawyer in the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, where he worked on voting rights issues. Of course, the FEC has nothing to do with enforcing the Voting Rights Act, but you might not know this if you listen only to Sen. Obama and other von Spakovsky detractors.

So, to understand the real von Spakovsky controversy, you can't begin with Obama's op-ed. For that, a much neglected story needs to be told.

THROUGHOUT THE 1990s, the Justice Department's voting rights section was mostly staffed with movement liberals who often failed to enforce the law and instead did the bidding of liberal-leaning interest groups. Things were so out of hand that a three-judge federal court called them on the carpet in a 1994 redistricting lawsuit writing, "Succinctly put, the considerable influence of ACLU advocacy on the voting rights decisions of the United States Attorney General is an embarrassment." In fact, during the 1990s, American taxpayers paid over $4,000,000 in attorney's fees awarded against the civil rights division after courts found that it had filed nearly a dozen frivolous discrimination cases, something that has not occurred during the current administration.

Following the 2000 election, these liberal staffers found that they were no longer permitted to run the voting rights section as an arm of the ALCU. One of the new employees blocking their way was von Spakovsky. Frustrated after losing power, many of the career employees eventually quit and joined the interest groups they once conspired with from within the Justice Department, such as the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, People for the American Way, and the ACLU. This past year, they have held a prolonged class reunion to oppose von Spakovsky's nomination to the FEC. Sen. Obama, apparently eager to find a "civil rights" issue to champion, has become their star spokesman.

None of Obama's criticisms are new--all are simply reiterations of the same old issues battled by the left: voter identification cards, purging voter rolls of felons, and redistricting efforts that might benefit Republicans. When the Senator's charges are closely examined however, it's clear that von Spakovsky's only crime was his failure to embrace the agenda of the liberal voting rights community. Let's examine each one.

In 2003, the Georgia legislature passed a law requiring voters to produce an official government-issued I.D. before being allowed to vote. Because Georgia is covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, it was required to seek permission from the Justice Department before this new I.D. law could go into effect.

Much to the consternation of the career lawyers there, the Justice Department approved the new law, correctly noting that, under the legal standards of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, it was not racially discriminatory and would not unduly harm minority voters. Obama claims von Spakovsky improperly overruled the career lawyers and ramrodded this discriminatory law into effect.

Yes, shortly after the Justice Department approved the law, a Georgia federal judge enjoined the state from implementing the new I.D. requirement, but on constitutional grounds for which the Justice Department had no standing to object. At no time did the judge ever find racial discrimination in the I.D. requirement. As it finally turned out, the Georgia legislature modified the new law by making I.D.s free to anyone who applied for one. The law is now in effect in Georgia. To date, no one has demonstrated how any of Georgia's minority voters have been harmed by the I.D. requirement during the elections that were held last September.