President Trump on Thursday appointed a divisive conservative voting rights expert to spearhead the White House’s search into allegations of widespread fraud in the 2016 presidential election.
The appointment of Hans von Spakovsky has reignited debate over the legitimacy of claims that include unsubstantiated accusations from Trump that “millions of people” voted illegally for Hillary Clinton. Von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department official, sparked legal battles over voting laws during the George W. Bush administration.
Von Spakovsky, 58, will join the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, though it remains unclear what role he will take. The White House’s Thursday night announcement, which included several other administration posts, did not provide further details. The announcement did not include any biographical information about von Spakovsky, either.
He said in an interview Friday that he does not enter this role with the assumption that voter fraud is a nationwide epidemic.
“I think the answer to that is what we hope to find out,” he told The Washington Post. “What I would say is that I think it’s a danger to the way our democratic system works anytime people are either kept out of the polls or their vote is stolen through fraud.”
For more than a decade, von Spakovsky has been a polarizing figure in voting rights circles, with conservatives championing his efforts to tighten regulations and shore up voter roll inconsistencies. His critics point to a career in which decisions have led to disenfranchisement among poor and minority groups.
“I think there are number of people who have been active in promoting false and exaggerated claims of voter fraud and using that as a pretext to argue for stricter voting and registration rules,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine. “And von Spakovsky’s at the top of the list.”
After von Spakovsky’s appointment was announced, Hasen wrote on his blog that it was “a big middle finger” from Trump to people “serious about fixing problems with our elections.”
Brian Schoeneman, who replaced von Spakovsky on the Fairfax Electoral Board in Virginia after he was not reappointed in 2012, defended von Spakovsky as committed to voter integrity and said he is not pursuing an extremist agenda.
“We do nobody any good when we ignore the fact that voter fraud does exist, and Hans has been trying to make the point that it does exist,” Schoeneman said.
In May, Trump’s executive order created the commission to investigate allegations of voter fraud in the presidential election, despite no evidence of widespread fraud that would substantiate Trump’s claim that as many as 3 to 5 million votes were cast illegally.
The appointment is the second opportunity for von Spakovsky to take part in shaping election and voting policy from the executive branch. Congressional Democrats blocked his nomination to the Federal Election Commission in 2008 following accusations of partisanship and voter rights suppression in his role at the Justice Department from 2002 to 2005, where he was counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights.
Von Spakovsky’s nomination at the FEC stretched for two years as Democrats painted a picture of an official who steamrolled the recommendations of career Justice lawyers. He overruled colleagues to approve a Georgia law in 2005 requiring that people present photo identification to vote, which some of his colleagues said would disproportionately impact African American voters. He also led unsuccessful suits to purge voter rolls in Missouri.
He currently heads the Election Law Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, where he is also a senior legal fellow.
Conservative voting experts have championed von Spakovsky’s appointment and view him as a central figure in rebuilding voting process integrity.
“He knows more about this than just about anyone in the country,” said J. Christian Adams, a longtime friend and colleague of von Spakovsky’s at the Justice Department, and now president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation.
“It’s going to be fun watching all the liars smear him” and “reacting like Pavlov’s dog” at his appointment, added Adams. “Who would be against bad voting rolls? Why are they afraid of improving the system?”
Voting rights activists are concerned von Spakovsky’s appointment is a sign that the commission will stoke fears of systemic voter fraud to strip poor and minority voters of dwindling abilities to cast their votes.
“I can’t recall in recent time an effort to comb and pull together individualized voter data in the way this commission seeks,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit civil rights group, said Friday.
“The only purpose behind the commission’s efforts is to encourage state officials to take action and purge voter rolls,” she said.
Voting rights advocates have also expressed concern that von Spakovsky is teaming up with another controversial figure, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who was appointed as the vice chairman of the commission.
“Kris Kobach and Hans von Spakovsky have had a single-minded agenda to diminish voter participation and to fight voting rights, and to make voting harder,” said Vanita Gupta, who headed the Justice Department’s civil rights division during the Obama administration. “I think you just cannot ignore the composition of the folks on this commission.”
Gupta, who is now president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the commission’s makeup is “deeply alarming.” Her tweet Thursday was the latest salvo in her criticism of Trump’s commission – and in her acrimonious relationship with von Spakovsky.
She tweeted, “I rest my case. Hans A. Von Spakovsky of Virginia to be a Member of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.”
Von Spakovsky wrote in the Daily Signal in November that she exceeded limits of appointees acting in a formal capacity without Senate confirmation.
The son of an immigrant family, von Spakovsky’s account of their journey to the United States is a dramatic story of post-war Europe. His father fled the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war in 1919 and entered Finland.
His father met his future wife, a German who escaped the Soviet siege of Breslau, in a refugee camp in the U.S.-occupied zone following World War II. His family later settled in Alabama.
“I grew up in a household where I was told just how precious our democracy was here and just how fortunate we are to have it,” von Spakovsky said.
When he was a boy, he said, his parents always took him along with them to vote.
“It imbued in me the belief that I had a duty to vote and that if I didn’t vote, I was betraying all the people in countries around the world who can’t do that. It just gave me a real interest in working to make sure we have a fair process,” he said.
Von Spakovsky is a longtime commentator. In a Fox News column published Wednesday, von Spakovsky championed the Supreme Court’s partial upholding of Trump’s travel ban, calling it a big victory for the administration.
It appeared to be a departure from von Spakovsky’s earlier beliefs that America has a role in the world to accept refugees, like his parents.
“America is a nation where we believe in liberty and freedom, and for more than 200 years it has generously welcomed those who were fleeing tyranny, oppression, and darkness,” he wrote for the National Review in 2013.
Mark Berman contributed to this report.