- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The embattled head of the Justice Department’s Voting Rights Section yesterday apologized for comments he made about elderly blacks that drew ire from Democrats, led by presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, who demanded his firing.

Section Chief John K. Tanner, in a prepared statement before a House subcommittee, described as “hurtful” his remarks during an Oct. 5 panel discussion in Los Angeles that voter-ID laws did not especially disenfranchise minority voters because “they die first.”

“I want to apologize for the comments I made at the recent meeting of the National Latino Congress about the impact of voter-identification laws on elderly and minority voters,” Mr. Tanner told the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties.

“I understand that my explanation of the data came across in a hurtful way, which I deeply regret,” he said. “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.”

Mr. Tanner called his comments “clumsy,” telling the subcommittee he was “addressing the sad fact that there are inequities in this country.”

But Mr. Obama, Illinois Democrat, asked Acting Attorney General Peter D. Keisler in a letter to fire Mr. Tanner, a 31-year Justice Department veteran, saying his remarks were a disgrace.

“Such comments are patently erroneous, offensive and dangerous, and they are especially troubling coming from the federal official charged with protecting voting rights in this country,” Mr. Obama wrote.

Mr. Obama also was critical of Mr. Tanner for his approval of a Georgia voter-identification law that requires voters to show government-issued photo identification at the polls. Mr. Tanner had overturned a ruling by lawyers in his office who said the Georgia law could be changed to be fairer to minority voters.

Opponents of the photo-ID proposal have said it disenfranchises minorities, the poor and the elderly who do not have driver’s licenses or other valid government-issued photo IDs. Proponents have said the laws are needed to prevent voter fraud.

The Justice Department said Mr. Tanner “works to protect civil rights on a daily basis,” adding that “nothing in his comments deviated from his firm commitment to enforce the law, and it is unfortunate that they have been so grossly misconstrued.”

The department’s statement said it “continues to have full confidence” in Mr. Tanner.

Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat and chairman of the full House Judiciary Committee, has said Mr. Tanner’s comments showed a “severe lack of appreciation of what the section’s mission should be,” and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and subcommittee chairman, has called for disciplinary action, which could include Mr. Tanner’s termination.

Rep. Artur Davis, Alabama Democrat, accused Mr. Tanner of engaging in “an analysis without knowing the numbers,” adding that “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.”

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