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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and fair elections, Hans von Spakovsky – a Republican nominee for commissioner on the nation’s elections agency – has withdrawn his nomination.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.

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