On the first day the new Congress was in session in January, Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, introduced the For the People Act, known in the House of Representatives as H.R.1. The sweeping bill seeks to revamp lobbyist registration, campaign financing, and voting rights. The Brennan Center for Justice said it “would create a more responsive and representative government by making it easier for voters to cast a ballot and harder for lawmakers to gerrymander.”
By the end of the month, hearings were held on Capitol Hill. One of the witnesses before the House Judiciary Committee hearings was Hans von Spakovsky, a former Federal Election Commission member who is now a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Von Spakovsky used high-minded and principled language to oppose the bill. In his prepared testimony, he wrote that H.R.1 is “clearly unconstitutional,” complaining that its provisions “come at the expense of federalism.”
At a private gathering of conservatives, von Spakovsky was candid about his reason for opposing the bill: It would be bad for Republicans.
Just two weeks later, however, as von Spakovsky addressed a private gathering of conservatives, he was considerably more candid about his reason for opposing the bill: It would be bad for Republicans.
That’s the message this scholar delivered when he traveled to Orlando, Florida, to brief a Council for National Policy-sponsored meeting of Republican donors and Christian right leaders on the bill. Sitting in the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes Ballroom, von Spakovsky explained that expanded voting rights and nonpartisan redistricting could imperil GOP political power.
Voting Rights, Gerrymandering, and Early Voting
One measure in the bill that von Spakovsky singled out would guarantee people with felonies voting rights when they leave prison. The result would be an electoral advantage for Democrats, von Spakovsky said, citing a study that found that a number of close congressional elections in recent history would have tipped toward Democrats had the law been in place.
“The key race that stuck out to me is that Mitch McConnell would have lost his first race for the U.S. Senate, which was a very close election,” von Spakovsky said, referring to the now-Senate majority leader’s 1984 victory by some 5,000 votes.
A ballot measure passed in Florida last year granting people with felonies the vote after serving their sentences, restoring voting rights to some 1.4 million people. Though Republicans in the state opposed the ballot measure and have sowed confusion about its implementation, von Spakovsky told the audience at the Council for National Policy event that Republicans did not make enough of a “concerted effort” to defeat it. (Neither von Spakovsky nor the Council for National Policy responded to requests for comment about the event.)
At the Florida event, von Spakovsky made partisan arguments against other aspects of H.R.1. He warned that the bill would create independent nonpartisan commissions to determine congressional boundaries — a measure designed to curb partisan gerrymandering. Experts have observed that, by controlling governors’ mansions and statehouses, which draw congressional districts, Republicans have managed to pack liberal voters into small pockets to avoid facing challenges in red congressional districts.
“That’s a really bad provision,” von Spakovsky told Republican donors in Florida. “I actually testified against it before the House Judiciary Committee about two weeks ago.”
In his prepared remarks on Capitol Hill, von Spakovsky called the redistricting provision “unconstitutional and antidemocratic,” citing the transfer of power away from state legislatures to Capitol Hill.
Yet speaking in private before assembled Republican officials and conservative activists in Orlando, von Spakovsky brought up a different concern: The proposed law, he said, would create “a violation of federal law to engage in partisan redistricting.” He said, “So if you favor the Republican Party,” by drawing districts that favor the party over the opposition, “you’re going to be violating federal law.”
H.R.1 also contains provisions designed to make voting easier for Americans. The bill would make Election Day a federal holiday, hike penalties for voter suppression, ensure a paper trail for voting machines, and allow early voting in federal elections for 15 days.
In his closing remarks, von Spakovsky said that even early voting could strain GOP campaign efforts because the provision might undermine the effort to deploy “poll watchers.” Republicans have been accused of using poll watchers to unreasonably challenge the eligibility of voters when they attempt to vote.
“It is tough enough getting enough folks on our side to be poll watchers on Election Day,” von Spakovsky said at the event. “If you have to find poll watchers for three or four weeks before an election, at numerous early voting sites, that is next to impossible.”
After his remarks, von Spakovsky distributed talking points for conservative groups and churches to help lobby legislators. The action list included a call to pressure Republican lawmakers to oppose the measure.
“H.R.1 has to be stopped. Presumably it will be in the Senate, but you never know when a couple of Republican senators get all weak-kneed.”
Former FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith — who founded the Institute for Free Speech, a group that opposes campaign finance regulations, and also testified on Capitol Hill against H.R.1 — joined von Spakovsky at the event. During the remarks, Smith rose and took the microphone to urge the crowd to defeat the bill.
“H.R.1 has to be stopped,” Smith said. “Presumably it will be in the Senate, but you never know when a couple of Republican senators get all weak-kneed, and it only takes a couple and it becomes a problem.” Asked by The Intercept to comment on his remarks to GOP donors, Smith said, “H.R. 1 contains complex and dangerous limits on speech, and in fact bans some speech, as we have been telling anyone who will listen. The bill must either be fixed or stopped altogether.”
Gearing Up for 2020
The guest list at the Council for National Policy event included a who’s who of conservative pundits, evangelical pastors, and other religious right leaders, as well as Republican office holders. The breakout group discussion on H.R.1 included Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state; Brent Bozell, the founder of conservative media watchdog Media Research Center; and National Review columnist John Fund.
Blackwell spoke out against the alleged scourge of voter fraud, which he said “will put us on the path leading to the type of socialism that AOC is talking about,” a reference to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
The gathering in Orlando focused heavily on how conservatives can prepare for the upcoming presidential election. Leonard Leo, president of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal advocacy group, was warmly welcomed by attendees and showered with praise for guiding President Donald Trump’s strategy on judicial appointments. During another session, Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., took the stage with several other Republican elected officials.
“The left is in Georgia — a red state in Georgia,” said Loudermilk. “Every precinct already has a paid staffer, with retirement benefits and everything, in every voting precinct in Georgia driving the vote out for the 2020 election, paid for by Soros” — a reference to Democratic billionaire George Soros. Loudermilk’s office did not respond to a request for comment clarifying the source of his claim about the precinct workers. Concerned Women for America leader Penny Young Nance and Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, social conservative groups that mobilize women for conservative campaigns, spoke about the upcoming presidential race as well.
Von Spakovsky cuts a controversial figure in the voting rights arena. In 2017, President Donald Trump appointed him to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, a short-lived panel that was unveiled as an effort to study voter fraud. The following year, after failing to produce any evidence of systemic illegal voting, the panel was disbanded.
When von Spakovsky was appointed, a number of election observers pointed to frequent cases in which he exaggerated claims of voter fraud. University of California, Irvine law professor Rick Hasen, an expert on legal issues around elections, has challenged von Spakovsky’s false claims about voter fraud. “Von Spakovsky is not a credible person on issues of election reform,” Hasen wrote on his blog.
Von Spakovsky served in the Justice Department under George W. Bush’s administration prior to his appointment to the FEC. Since then, he has been a prominent voice in the media, beating the drum about elections allegedly stolen by Democrats.
Both the Council for National Policy and the Heritage Foundation, where von Spakovsky is currently employed, were founded by Paul Weyrich, an avowed opponent of access to the ballot.
“How many of our Christians have what I call the ‘goo-goo syndrome’ — good government?” asked Weyrich at a rally in 1980, a video clip of which is available on YouTube. “They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. ”
“Elections are not won by a majority of people; they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now,” Weyrich continued. “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”