FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
The head of the Justice Department's voting rights section apologized last week for comments he made about elderly African-Americans. John Tanner appeared before a House Subcommittee and read a prepared statement.
Mr. JOHN TANNER (Chief, Voting Section, U.S. Department of Justice): Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you. 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.
CHIDEYA: The apology came after the Justice Department's recent review of a Georgia law requiring voter ID cards. Some officials likened the law to a poll tax that would disenfranchise voters. Tanner's reply was that, if anything, the law would hurt the white elderly more than any other group because…
Mr. TANNER: …that minorities don't become elderly the way white people do. They die first. There are inequities in health care. There are variety inequities in this country.
CHIDEYA: Despite Tanner's mea culpa, some members with the House Judiciary Subcommittee were not satisfied. Here's Alabama's Democratic Congressman Arthur Davis.
Representative ARTHUR DAVIS (Democrat, Alabama): You are in in charge 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 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.
CHIDEYA: In a moment, we'll talk with a close friend of John Tanner's.
But first, one of the Tanner critics. Congressman Davis, welcome.
Rep. DAVIS: Thank you for having me today.
CHIDEYA: So an editorial from the New York Times interpreted Mr. Tanner's statement as saying, quote, "blacks are likely to die before they become elderly." What's your interpretation?
Rep. DAVIS: One of the problems, I think, that we sometimes have in Washington is we have the apology phenomenon: Someone says something that's wrongful, someone says something that's just not accurate and then the person comes back and says, well, I apologize for any offense I may have caused. The issue, with all due respect to Mr. Tanner, is frankly not hurt feelings. It's not whether or not people felt offended. It's the fact that you have the head of the Voting Rights Division who's charged with enforcing a major portion of our voting rights laws advancing an argument that is factually unsupported, statistically unsupported, and that led, in this case, to, I think, the wrong conclusion which was a sign off of a voter ID law that, frankly, should have been rejected by the Department of Justice.
So apologies are fine if the only penalty is hurt feelings. The problem is deeper. It's a high-ranking government officer acting based on bad information.
CHIDEYA: The fact is, though, African-Americans do die at younger ages than whites overall. What exactly - unpack your opposition to me?
Rep. DAVIS: Well, this is the problem: Mr. Tanner's argument is that voter ID laws don't have an adverse impact on black voting participation. That's his premise. And he gets there by suggesting, well, voter ID laws most negatively impact older Americans. And he argues, frankly, without the live statistical justification, that older people may be less likely to have driver's licenses. So his theory is that because the life expectancy rate is less for African-Americans that blacks are less affected.
That's his argument. That doesn't hold up in the real world. A significant number of African-American voters are elderly, whether you define that term as plus-70 or plus-65. However you define that term, a percentage standpoint, more older blacks participate than older white sometimes participate in the process, particularly during presidential election years when there's normally a high turn out of both blacks and whites.
So you can't argue that voter ID laws don't disfranchise African-Americans. And Tanner's reasoning was sloppy, his reasoning was unsupported, and an apology just doesn't make up for that.
CHIDEYA: When you look back at his career, he's had significant involvement with Civil Rights Division, prosecuted hate crimes, and enforced the Voting Rights Act. So do you feel as if this is something that was a misstep in a long career that has been favorable to civil rights?
Rep. DAVIS: Well, I think that this is not about John Tanner the person. What we have is a high-ranking official who's in charge with enforcing the laws, who is willing to take serious substantive positions without having all the facts.
During another speech that Mr. Tanner gave, he made the observation that driver's license and voter ID laws aren't problematic for blacks because a lot of blacks have to go to a check cashing place, and you've got to have a license in a check cashing place. That's yet another reason we don't have to worry about blacks in having licenses.
Mr. Tanner cannot cite any statistical evidence on any of these questions, on any one of the five or six questions he's pontificating on. He doesn't have a factual foundation on any of them, and in many cases, if not all cases, the facts actually undercut his premise. That's what's problematic. And John Tanner — I don't know John Tanner — he may be a wonderful human being, he may have a glittering record, but the position that he is in now calls on someone who's rigorous about the facts and someone who applies the law faithfully not based on unfounded stereotypes or generalizations.
CHIDEYA: So what do you want out of this? What is the outcome that you desire?
Rep. DAVIS: Well, the outcome that I desire is when the next president of the United States gets around to picking an attorney general and gets around to picking a head of his or her civil rights division that we get someone who's going to be the kind of assistant attorney general we need. Someone who's going to interpret the voting rights law in a manner that meets the goals of the Voting Rights Act, which is lifting barriers and expanding and encouraging minority participation in the governed state.
CHIDEYA: It sounds as if you are willing to wait until there's a new president. Senator Barack Obama has said that Tanner should be sacked. What about that?
Rep. DAVIS: Well, I think there's a very strong case for removing Mr. Tanner based on the seriousness of his error. So I agree with Senator Obama that we need a new attorney general. As a practical matter, President Bush has been so inclined to cling to nominees or rather to appointees who aren't serving well that I doubt he will make a change here.
CHIDEYA: Well, congressman, thank you so much.
Rep. DAVIS: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Arthur Davis is a Democratic congressman representing Alabama's 7th District.