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Voting Rights Head Apologizes for Comments on Minorities

October 30, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: John Tanner sat before members of the House Judiciary Committee this morning once again caught in a swirl of controversy.

JOHN TANNER, Justice Department Official: Let me first note that I have apologized to the National Latino Congreso for comments I made about the impact of voter identification laws on the elderly and minority voters.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tanner, chief of the voting section within the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, was referring to an explanation he gave to a Los Angeles Latino group earlier this month on why voter identification laws, such as requiring a photo ID, were more likely to discriminate against elderly white people than minorities.

JOHN TANNER: Of course, that also ties into the racial aspect, because our society is such that minorities don’t become elderly the way white people do. They die first.

Calls for Tanner's firing

KWAME HOLMAN: Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama, among others, has said Tanner should be fired for those remarks, which Tanner said were misconstrued.

JOHN TANNER: The reports of my comments do not in any way accurately reflect my career of devotion to enforcing federal laws designed to assure fair and equal access to the ballot.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tanner went on to describe for the committee a career that began stuffing envelopes for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Alabama and taking African-Americans to register to vote. And Tanner touted the achievements of the Justice Department's voting section, which he has led since 2005.

JOHN TANNER: We have seen segregated polling places, ethnic slurs, race-based challenges, voters leaving the polls in tears, and ballots actually taken from voters and marked contrary to their wishes. We go into court to stop these practices.

Tanner called to defend himself

KWAME HOLMAN: But Alabama Democrat Artur Davis challenged Tanner to defend his recent comments.

REP. ARTUR DAVIS (D), Alabama: In my state of Alabama, 2004 presidential election, what percentage of minorities do you think voted in that election?

JOHN TANNER: I would be -- I do not know the figure, and I would like to make sure before I give any information.

REP. ARTUR DAVIS: Do you have a ballpark estimate?

JOHN TANNER: I don't have an estimate.

REP. ARTUR DAVIS: The number was 73 percent. Do you happen to know what percentage of whites voted in my state in the presidential in 2004?

JOHN TANNER: I also do not know that.

REP. ARTUR DAVIS: The number was 74 percent. Do you know what percentage of those minority voters were elderly in my state?

JOHN TANNER: It's my belief, but I would have to check the data, that elderly voters in Alabama, many of whom I worked with, have -- are more -- have good turnout.

REP. ARTUR DAVIS: In my state of Alabama in 2004, of that 73 percent black voter turnout, 40 percent of them were over 60. That is actually a higher percentage than in the white community.

You're a policymaker, sir. You are encharged with enforcing the voting rights laws in the country. And if you are not fully informed about things that you're talking about and pontificating about, if you're basing your conclusions on stereotypes and generalizations, that raises a question in the minds of some of us whether or not you are the person best positioned to make these choices.

Previous decisions raise questions

KWAME HOLMAN: This was not the first time Tanner's comments or decisions have stirred controversy. Tanner approved Georgia's new photo ID law, despite the objections of four of five Justice Department staffers who warned it would, in fact, disenfranchise minority voters.

New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), New York: You overruled that, is that correct?

JOHN TANNER: I made the decision.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: That they were incorrect and that you should change the recommendation?

JOHN TANNER: I will say that I made the decision, and my decision was based on a careful analysis that had been ongoing for a considerable period of time.

Reports of voter obstruction

KWAME HOLMAN: Tanner also concluded there was no evidence that African-American voters in Ohio intentionally were obstructed from voting in the 2004 presidential election; that, despite reports of long lines, hours of delay, and cumbersome identification checks thousands of African-Americans had to endure to vote that day.

JOHN TANNER: I based the decision after careful scrutiny on the facts and on the applicable law and made the complex lengthy decision whether we or not we can prove a violation of a specific statute in federal court.

KWAME HOLMAN: The committee allowed John Tanner to leave after 90 minutes of testimony. As for those photo IDs, Georgia is one of seven states that currently require them in order to vote. However, the Supreme Court will hear and is expected to rule on a challenge to Indiana's version of the law sometime before the 2008 election.