The White House announced on Monday that President Trump is adding another vote-suppression superstar to his “Election Integrity Commission”: former Justice Department lawyer J. Christian Adams.
What is perhaps most surprising is that Adams had not yet been named to the commission, which has become a who’s who of advocates of restrictive voting laws, including former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, Heritage foundation fellow Hans von Spakovsky and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the panel’s vice-chair. By contrast, the members of the commission who do not come to the table already convinced by the threat of widespread voter fraud and the need to “fix” it by restricting the right to vote are largely less prominent figures, including one former state legislator who openly says he has no idea why he was named to the panel.
The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen has described Adams as “a longtime conservative critic of many facets of the Voting Rights Act, whose claim to fame as a federal lawyer seems to be his penchant for accusing black people of discriminating against whites.”
Adams joined the Justice Department’s Voting Section in 2005, in what was a prominent example of what was later found to be politically motivated hiring of career attorneys in the Bush Justice Department. Once Obama became president, he quit, later claiming that the Civil Rights Division under Obama didn’t “want to protect white voters.”
Adams was particularly angry that Attorney General Eric Holder had dropped most of the charges against members of the New Black Panther Party who were filmed outside a Philadelphia polling place in 2008, one of them holding a club. Although no voters had complained about the incident, it became a cause célèbre in the right-wing media, which used it in part to draw attention from voter-suppression policies that were disenfranchising minority voters on a large scale. Adams, who had worked on the case at the Justice Department, became a key booster of the story, once telling Fox’s Megyn Kelly that the case showed the Obama DOJ’s “hostility” to “bringing cases on behalf of white victims for the benefit of national racial minorities.”
After he left the Justice Department, Adams worked with the right-wing legal group Judicial Watch before landing at the American Civil Rights Union (ACRU) and then the Public Interest Legal Foundation, where he has worked to threaten states and counties with lawsuits if they do not purge their voter rolls. His 2011 book, “Injustice: Exposing the Racial Agenda of the Obama Justice Department,” made him a regular at right-wing conferences and on right-wing media.
Even after Holder left the Justice Department, Adams continued to attack the Obama administration for what he apparently saw as too much of a focus on racism, attacking Loretta Lynch, when she was under consideration to replace Holder, for buying into “this same grievance industry about structural racism in the United States” and comparing the assassination of police officers in Dallas to the Obama administration’s “despicable and calculated attack on law enforcement.”
Von Spakovsky has followed a similar career track to Adams. He worked as an attorney in the Bush Justice Department, where he approved a Georgia voter ID program “over the objections of staff lawyers,” while using a pseudonym to write an article in support of ID requirements. Bush appointed von Spakovsky to a seat on the Federal Election Commission during a Senate recess, but he was never confirmed because of the controversy over his role at the Justice Department. Eventually, he withdrew his name from consideration.
Von Spakovsky then landed at the Heritage Foundation, where he has led the conservative behemoth’s work hyping the nonexistent problem of widespread voter fraud. Last year, then-Heritage president Jim DeMint openly admitted that his group was working to impose voter ID requirements across the country in order to elect “more conservative candidates.” Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the Heritage Foundation, famously declared in the 1980s that he didn’t “want everybody to vote” because “our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Von Spakovsy’s “color blind” pursuit of policies that disenfranchise people of color is echoed in his advocacy on other issues. In 2015, he mocked then-Justice Department attorney Vanita Gupta’s speech linking “mistrust” of police in African American communities to the history of slavery and Jim Crow, saying that liberals “don’t ever want to talk about…the fact that slavery was an institution in Africa” and we “got rid of it long before it disappeared in Africa.” Last year, von Spakovsky waged a bizarre one-man campaign against President Obama’s pick to be the Librarian of Congress, claiming that she had just been chosen because she was a woman of color and wasn’t fit to be an advocate of “American cultural greatness.”
Kobach also had a stint in Bush’s Justice Department, where he helped create the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which has been described as a Muslim registry. He then worked with the legal arm of the anti-immigrant hate group Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) to craft draconian immigration policies throughout the country, including helping to write Arizona’s infamous “show me your papers” law. In his home state of Kansas, Kobach helped push through one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country and has been fighting court challenges against it ever since. After convincing the state legislature to give him the power to prosecute voter fraud cases, Kobach was able to dig up just one case of a noncitizen voting, even as his voter ID requirement threatened to prevent thousands of people from registering to vote.
Kobach also has a history of troubling comments about race. As The New Republic notes, he was “an early adopter of the birther conspiracy, repeatedly calling on President Obama to release his birth certificate (which he had already done)”; he once speculated that Obama might have opposed his Kansas proof-of-citizenship requirement because he isn’t a citizen himself. He once griped that the president thought too highly of himself because he was the product of an “affirmative action culture.”
Speaking with a caller to a radio show he hosts, Kobach said in 2015 that it was possible that the Obama administration might ban all prosecutions of African Americans. When a caller to his show in 2014 wondered if Hispanics, were they to become the majority in the U.S., would conduct an “ethnic cleansing” of white people, Kobach responded that while he didn’t think it would happen, the “rule of law” was collapsing under Obama and “things are strange and they are happening.” In the same program, Kobach accused Democrats of “replacing American voters with newly legalized aliens.” Mocking voters who stayed home during the 2014 election, Kobach claimed that they were “sitting in front of the TV all day talking on their Obama Phones,” a reference to a racist meme about Obama giving free phones to African Americans. Angry about Black churches that spoke out against his voter ID law, Kobach called them “churches in quotation marks.”
Then there’s Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state who now works at the vehemently anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council. Peter summarized his voting rights record in a report for People For the American Way:
Another member of the Commission is former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who became notorious for efforts to hinder minority voter registration to help Bush win re-election in 2004—he tried to reject all voter registration forms not printed on 80-pound paper—and he was still at it in 2006—trying to impede registration drives by requiring anyone signing up voters to turn in the forms in-person to the board of elections or Secretary of State’s office. The Brennan Center for Justice has said that during his time in Ohio Blackwell “became notorious for partisan conflicts, attempts to restrict access to the ballot, and chaotic election administration.” The Brennan Center also notes, “He was also one of the very few current or former election officials to echo President Trump’s false allegation of widespread illegal voting in the 2016 election.”
Trump clearly set up his commission in an attempt to justify his claims that he only lost the popular vote in 2016 because of large-scale voter fraud benefiting Hillary Clinton. He has hand-picked a team that is primed to give him exactly the answers that he wants.