Voting Chief Testifies, Apologizes in House Hearing

John Tanner, head of the voting section at the Justice Department, appeared Tuesday before a House subcommittee. He faced challenges from Democrats about the Justice Department's enforcement of voting rights laws. And he apologized for recent comments he made concerning minorities and voter IDs.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

An apology today from the head of the Justice Department's voting rights section did not appease his critics. John Tanner, testifying before a House subcommittee hearing, apologized for claiming that minorities aren't hurt by ID requirements as much as other voters because they tend to die young.

NPR's Pam Fessler is covering the hearing.

PAM FESSLER: Tanner made his remarks earlier this month in a discussion about the Justice Department's 2005 support of a Georgia voter ID law. He told a Latino group in California that the lack of ID is primarily a problem for the elderly. And that meant it has less impact on minorities because, quote, "minorities don't become elderly the way white people do, they die first."

Today, Tanner had this to say to a House Judiciary subcommittee.

Mr. JOHN TANNER (Voting Section Chief, Justice Department): I have apologized to the National Latino Congreso for comments I made about the impact of voter identification laws on elderly and minority voters. My explanation of the data came across in a hurtful way, which I deeply regret.

FESSLER: But lawmakers, who have a long list of concerns about the Justice Department's enforcement of voting laws, weren't about to let Tanner off so easily.

Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison said he was confused.

Representative KEITH ELLISON (Democrat, Minnesota): Exactly what are you apologizing for?

Mr. TANNER: I hurt people.

Rep. ELLISON: How did you hurt them?

Mr. TANNER: The reactions of people to my statements, which were very contrary to what I was trying to communicate.

Rep. ELLISON: So you're apologizing because of the reaction people had to your statements?

FESSLER: In effect, Tanner said yes, that his wording was clumsy. But in Georgia, African-Americans do tend to have a shorter lifespan. Something he called a sad and sorrowful fact.

But Alabama Democrat Arthur Davis asked why that was relevant, noting that in his state, turnout among elderly black voters has been higher than among elderly whites. He questioned Tanner's use of statistics to justify a policy that rang counter to the advice of several career Justice Department attorneys.

Representative ARTHUR DAVIS (Democrat, Alabama): If you are basing your conclusions on stereotypes rather than facts, then it suggest to some of us that someone else can do this job better than you can.

FESSLER: And indeed, voting rights groups and several Democrats, including presidential candidate Barack Obama, have called for Tanner to resign. They say his actions are more evidence that the Justice Department has become politicized under President Bush, although Republicans countered that it's the Democrats who were politicizing the controversy.

Tanner says he, initially, expected to oppose the Georgia ID law.

Mr. TANNER: I did not make my decisions based on assumptions. We looked at the numbers. I had been surprised by those numbers.

FESSLER: Which he said show that minority voters were not less likely than white voters to have the required ID. But lawmakers accused Tanner of pursuing other efforts that appeared targeted at restricting voters' access to the polls.

Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz noted that his office sued the state of Missouri for not cleaning up its voter registration lists despite little evidence of voter fraud. Tanner denied that was the focus.

Mr. TANNER: We sued them to stop them from removing voters without notice. That was a count in our lawsuit.

Representative DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (Democrat, Florida): No. The primary purpose of your lawsuit was that you - that Missouri was failing to make a reasonable effort to remove ineligible people from local voter registration roles.

FESSLER: Other lawmakers said they were more worried about the 2008 elections. And Tanner assured them he'd do what he could to make sure voters aren't unfairly blocked from the polls.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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