Justice Dept. Voting Chief Apologizes But Persists

John K. Tanner, chief of the Justice Department's voting section, has been heavily criticized for comments, including that minorities die before whites.
John K. Tanner, chief of the Justice Department's voting section, has been heavily criticized for comments, including that minorities die before whites. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

House Democrats sharply criticized the head of the Justice Department's voting section yesterday for making a series of racially charged statements, including his suggestion that black voters are not hurt as much as whites by voter identification laws because "they die first."

In a tense appearance before a House Judiciary subcommittee, John K. Tanner apologized for the "tone" of his comments about elderly voters earlier this month and said they "do not in any way accurately reflect my career of devotion" to upholding federal voting rights laws.

"I want to apologize for the comments," Tanner said. ". . . I understand that my explanation of the data came across in a hurtful way, which I deeply regret."

But Tanner, a 31-year Justice Department career employee, also stuck by his assertion that demographic differences between racial groups temper the impact on minorities of laws requiring that voters present detailed identification, prompting several Democrats to question his fitness to be a senior official in the department's Civil Rights Division.

"You're saying you're right but your tone was wrong," said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). "I don't know what you're apologizing for."

Toby Moore, a former political geographer in the voting section, told the committee that Tanner regularly engaged in "broad generalizations, deliberate misuse of statistics and casual supposition" in making decisions, including overruling Moore and other career employees in approving a 2005 Georgia voter identification law.

That law was later struck down on constitutional grounds by a federal judge who likened it to a Jim Crow-era poll tax. Georgia passed a revised statute in 2006.

Tanner's testimony followed a series of remarks this month that have caused a political uproar and led to calls from some Democrats, including senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama (Ill.), that Tanner resign or be fired.

At the National Latino Congreso in Los Angeles earlier this month, Tanner said that voter identification laws primarily affect elderly people because they are less likely to have photo IDs, and that such laws are less likely to affect minorities because they tend to die earlier. A few days earlier, Tanner also suggested to the Georgia NAACP that poor people are likely to have photo IDs because check-cashing businesses require them.

The remarks prompted widespread criticism yesterday from Democrats -- including several black lawmakers -- who said Tanner's remarks indicated a lack of concern for minority rights and were based on flawed analyses.

National health statistics show that blacks have shorter life expectancies than whites. But lawmakers and some voting experts said other data also show that older minority voters frequently cast ballots at higher rates than their white counterparts.

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said voting statistics in his own state show that a higher percentage of blacks older than 60 voted in the 2004 presidential election than whites in the same age group.

"You engaged in analysis without knowing the numbers," Davis said. "If you are basing your conclusions on stereotypes rather than facts, then it suggests to some of us that someone else can do this job better than you can."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company