Ideology trumps experience in Federal Election Commissioner’s rise
[Read Part I of this series.]
Caroline Hunter’s confirmation to the Election Assistance Commission in February 2007 came near the end of the agency’s controversial handling of two internally contentious commissioned studies — one on voter fraud and the other on voter identification laws. Pressure to fill the four-member bipartisan commission was high: the election season was heating up.
Emails released to Congress about the two studies, reviewed by Raw Story, reveal that Hunter’s selection was not only well-timed but also succeeded in installing an ideologically partisan insider on the commission.
Hunter’s confirmation by unanimous consent in the Senate occurred without a hearing or even a roll call vote. Her lack of election administration experience escaped scrutiny, as did her activities at the Republican National Committee and her subsequent stints at the Department of Homeland Security and in a Bush White House staff position as deputy director at the Office of Public Liaison. The latter office reported directly to Karl Rove.
But only a handful of election law experts and government watchdog groups raised questions at the time. Even those who questioned Hunter’s nomination knew little about her.
Established by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is charged with advising local and state election officials, developing guidelines for certifying voting systems and conducting research on election administration issues.
By law, “Each member of the commission shall have experience with, or expertise in, election administration or the study of elections.”
Hunter had neither.
She was, however, a GOP veteran. Hunter’s history with the Republican Party dates back to working on the 1992 Bush/Quayle campaign. She also had close ties to Dick Cheney’s longtime friend and advisor Mary Matalin. Matalin thanked Hunter by name for “hand holding” during the writing of her 1995 book All’s Fair: Love, War, and Running for President, co-written with her husband James Carville.
Dan Takiji, an election law expert and associate professor of law at Ohio State University, pointed out Hunter’s striking lack of experience at the time.
“All of the prior EAC commissioners, Democrats and Republicans alike, have been people with substantial relevant experience,” he noted. “There’s reason to be concerned that this is someone who’s being appointed not for her qualifications, but rather to look out for the political interests of the party to which she belongs.”
By 2007, Hunter had a direct pipeline to the Bush White House, the Department of Justice and GOP operatives who vigorously pursued a partisan ideological agenda.
One of those operatives was Hans von Spakovsky, a Bush administration Justice Department official who succeeded in undermining the Civil Rights Division’s mandate to protect voting rights.
During his tenure as Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, von Spakovsky repeatedly overruled the recommendations of career attorneys on an array of voting rights cases. Among his many efforts included sanctioning restrictive voter ID laws in Georgia and Arizona even though he was advised they would disenfranchise minority voters. He, in turn, also targeted career staff who opposed them.
Von Spakovsky politicized the election commission, frequently butting heads with Republican commission vice-chair Paul DeGregorio. Two incidents involved von Spakovsky’s issue with researchers working on the voter fraud and voter ID studies whom he deemed not sufficiently aligned with his and the administration’s views.
Internal emails show that DeGregorio relayed Von Spakovksy’s concerns to his fellow commissioners. But they also reveal that DeGregorio directly rebuked von Spakovsky for his bullying approach. DeGregorio was not reappointed to the commission when his term expired.
Instead, the Bush White House replaced him with Caroline Hunter.
DeGregorio did not respond to several requests for an interview with Raw Story. In 2007, McClatchy reported that he had told colleagues von Spakovsky had orchestrated his removal.
In the end, the Election Assistance Commission sat on the voter fraud study, which found “little polling place fraud.” It later released an edited version that concluded “there is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud” — echoing rhetoric conservatives have used to sow suspicion of climate change.
The election commission also tried to bury a separate study on voter IDs. Executed by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, it concluded that voter ID laws, purportedly designed to prevent fraud, disproportionately reduced turnout among minorities.
Pressure from media reports, government watchdog groups and Congress eventually forced the commission to release the voter ID report. It did so without endorsing its findings. Justice Department interference in both studies, chiefly by von Spakovsky, later emerged in 40,000 emails and documents released to Congress following an inquiry into the studies’ suppression.
An April 2007 email exchange revealed von Spakovsky’s eagerness to use Hunter’s new position to influence the EAC even after he’d left the Justice Department for his Bush recess appointment to the Federal Election Commission.
In the email, he directs conservative scholar John Lott — a vote suppression loyalist and reliable GOP right-wing social scientist — to contact Hunter for help in gathering information to assail the findings of the voter ID study.
Claiming that the EAC-commissioned researchers “recast the numbers to come to the conclusion they wanted,” Von Spakovsky encourages Lott to attack the study “now being trumpeted as proof that voter ID hurts turnout” and assures him that “Caroline Hunter, one of the new commissioners at the EAC, would be happy to provide you with whatever information you might need.”
Von Spakovsky then forwards their communications to Hunter.
Gerry Hebert, a former DOJ prosecutor and executive director at the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center, says it’s “inconceivable” that von Spakovsky didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t discuss the matter with Hunter beforehand.
Lott himself had been widely discredited. The Washington Post revealed in 2003 that he’d posed online as fictional female student “Mary Rosh” for three years in order to defend his own work and teaching prowess, calling himself “the best professor I ever had.”
Lott was also the RNC’s “expert witness” in the 2004 vote caging case for which Hunter provided misleading sworn testimony, Raw Story has found. His testimony was used to claim that the Republican Party voter challenges in Ohio would not disproportionately affect predominantly African-American precincts.
Amid the 40,000 emails and documents released to Congress over the voter fraud and voter ID studies, Raw Story also uncovered Hunter’s communications with Craig Burkhardt and Todd Rokita — two Republican lawyers who were in the vanguard of pushing voter fraud hysteria and stringent voter ID laws. In their emails, they express relief that she is at the commission to influence future studies, along with their discontent over the voter ID study.
On Mar. 30, 2007, Hunter addresses a group email, with the title “Eagleton Voter ID study,” to herself, with the intended recipients apparently bcc’d. In her email, Hunter explains the EAC’s decision to release the study without recommending its conclusion.
“In my opinion,” she writes, “the methodology used by Eagleton is flawed and none of the information submitted is useful in any way.” She also decries that “several press outlets, including the NYT and USA Today, reported that the study shows a chilling effect on turnout in states with voter ID, particularly minorities.”
Burkhardt replies, “Dear Caroline: Thanks for the info. Did the EAC pay for this study?”
“Yes, paid quite a bit for this and for Eagleton research on provisional ballots,” Hunter responds. Burkhardt replies, “What a sad use of taxpayer funds. I look forward to your oversight of these matters. Hope all is well with you at the new office.” Hunter writes back, “Very sad indeed.”
Burkhardt is a former president of the Republican National Lawyers Association. According to the 2004 study “GOP Ballot Security Programs” by voting rights scholar Chandler Davidson, the Association was created in direct response to a 1982 decree that prevented the GOP from pursuing vote suppression activities in the name of “ballot security.” This activity was stepped up during Bush’s term and Burkhardt’s tenure as president.
Republican National Lawyers Association attorneys, including Burkhardt, played a key role in preventing a recount during Bush v. Gore in 2000. So proud were they of their involvement, Davidson’s study notes, that they created trophies they present to honorees, which include voting card chads from Florida embedded in Lucite.
Burkhardt is also one of the founding officers of the little-known, shadowy Lawyers Democracy Fund, created by the Republican National Lawyer’s Association just weeks before filing an amicus brief in an Indiana voter ID case. The Lawyers Democracy Fund, which as a 501(c)(4) can raise money without having to report its donors, purports to be “non-partisan” while masking its association with the Republican National Lawyers Association.
Hunter also corresponded with the Republican Secretary of State of Indiana, Todd Rokita. Rokita is considered among the most partisan chief election officials in the country, having implemented Indiana’s voter ID law, the strictest voter ID law in the nation.
In reply to Hunter’s email, he writes, “Thank you, Caroline. Do you feel comfortable with how things stand?”
“I suppose as comfortable as can be expected,Ã¢â‚¬Â Hunter replies. “Now that I’ve been there a few weeks, I’d like to catch up when you have some time.”
Two weeks later, Rokita addressed the annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner at the Washington Conservative Club, declaring, “It is Republicans under God that will save this country if it is to be saved.” He also questioned why African-Americans vote Democratic 90 percent of the time, saying, “How can that be? 90 to 10. Who’s the master and who’s the slave in that relationship?”
An ideological approach
Hunter’s ideological approach to election law also surfaces among the emails released to Congress.
In interviews with Raw Story, election law experts argued — unanimously — that taxpayer-funded studies commissioned by the EAC should be released to the public regardless of their findings. They pointed out that this doesn’t preclude the commission from also issuing caveats and its own interpretations.
Yet when an EAC deputy counsel emailed commissioners and staff regarding Congressional requests to release a study on provisional voting, which the commission also initially suppressed, Hunter was opposed.
“If we release every single thing that comes in the door every contractor will have a platform to shop their ‘research’ as they see fit at taxpayers’ expense,” Hunter writes, turning on its head election experts’ rationale for releasing taxpayer-funded studies. “Further, I see no need for a Commission, there would only be a need for a research director to dole out government contracts.”
Hunter doesn’t mention the Commission is charged with evaluating and selecting contractors to hire.
In fact, researchers who worked on the voter ID and provisional voting studies told Raw Story that it was the EAC — and its Bush-appointed first chair DeForest Soaries — who approached Eagleton to perform the studies.
In an interview, John Weingart, one of the researchers who worked on the studies for Eagleton, said it was misleading to portray the selection process in such a manner.
“This wasn’t a proposal cooked up at Rutgers, where we said, ‘Oh, we want to go study this issue,'” Weingart told Raw Story. “The commission reached out.”
But, he added, it later “became increasingly clear that there were people there who didn’t like the conclusion and therefore didn’t want the study released,” who wanted to “just pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Denying White House influence
On a separate email reviewed by Raw Story, EAC spokeswoman Jeannie Layson mentions that New York Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano, the Chair of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, had written the EAC to release the provisional voting study.
Layson notes that Serrano was quoted in news reports “as saying the situation surrounding our [vote] fraud report could be another Watergate, and wonders if we got our marching orders from the WH. I think we should respond directly to Rep. Serrano regarding his allegation.”
Hunter recommends they contact Serrano but also issue a press release explaining how they handled the studies, noting “that the EAC is an independent federal entity, not part of the Admin and that the WH was not involved in any way in our decision to remove conclusions not supported by the underlying data.”
But records show operatives who were clearly doing the bidding of the Bush White House — like Hans von Spakovsky — had interfered and influenced the course of the studies. Hunter’s appointment itself, and the removal of her predecessor, was a result of such influence.
In a 2006 interview, Soaries, the onetime election commission chair, admitted receiving direct pressure from the White House.
“The one time I got a call from the White House trying to invade this space, I pushed back, and they never called again,” he said. “There were people in the White House who thought that because I was a Republican that I cared more than I did about Republican politics.”
EAC commissioners Donetta Davidson and Gracia Hillman, who served with Hunter and remain on the commission, declined to comment through EAC spokeswoman Sarah Litton. Litton also declined to comment on behalf of the commission.
Former EAC commissioner Rosemary Rodriguez, who also served with Hunter, did not return calls requesting an interview.
Soaries would not comment on Hunter’s work directly.
“We (original EAC Commissioners) fought hard against partisanship while I was there,” Soaries wrote in an email to Raw Story. “And both Democrats and Republicans on the Commission resisted efforts from our respective parties when they sought partisan outcomes from EAC.”
Loyola Law School election law expert Rick Hasen echoed Soaries’ remarks.
“My suspicion about Commissioner Hunter is that she was appointed precisely because she’d be a reliable, reflexive partisan voter on disputed issues at both the FEC [to which she’s appointed subsequently] and EAC,” Hasen said in an email to Raw Story. “She did not appear to have the independence of other commissioners from both sides of the aisle, such as EAC Commissioners Soaries, Martinez, and DeGregorio. My sense is that in both agencies she has been a reliable Republican vote on all contested issues.”
In the end, Soaries added, “Both the Democrats and the Republicans in Washington proved to be more interested in partisan outcomes than election reform. That is why I left after serving 15 months of a four-year term.”
Brad Jacobson is a contributing investigative reporter for Raw Story. Additional research was provided by Muriel Kane.
Correction: Because of an editing error, Paul DeGregorio’s name was misspelled in the original version of this article.