A senior Justice Department official apologized before a congressional panel Tuesday for racially tinged comments he made earlier this month that prompted calls for his resignation.
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the work of the department's Civil Rights Division, John Tanner, the division's chief of voting rights, was extensively questioned about remarks he made about longevity and race and photo identification requirements.
At a meeting of the National Latino Congress on Oct. 5, 2007, Tanner remarked that photo identification requirements may cause voting problems for the elderly, but would not disenfranchise minority voters because "our society is such that minorities don't become elderly the way white people do. They die first."
Tanner's comments, which have been widely circulated on YouTube, led presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to call for his resignation.
Before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Tanner said, "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 … My explanation of the data came across in a hurtful way, which I deeply regret."
Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., grilled Tanner on percentages of elderly and minority voters in Alabama.
After citing data from the 2004 election that turnout for elderly minority voters was higher than elderly white voters, Davis excoriated Tanner, saying, "You engaged in an analysis without knowing the numbers ... 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."
"It was a clumsy statement," Tanner explained. "I was addressing the sad fact that there are inequities in this country."
The hearing had previously been called by the committee to examine issues inside the Civil Rights Division, which has seen staff turnover in the past year as Justice Department morale plunged under the leadership of Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales resigned Aug. 27.
Tanner also faced extensive questions about his approval of Georgia's voter identification law, which required voters to show a government-issued ID at the polls.
Tanner overruled a 51-page analysis by four career attorneys in his section who said the Georgia law could be changed in certain aspects to be fairer to minority voters. Tanner said that at first he thought the law may have discriminated against minority voters, but said, "My presumptions ran into the facts… it did not warrant an objection."
In July 2006, a federal judge issued an injunction against the Georgia law saying it violated the Constitution because residents had to pay for their IDs, which constituted a poll tax. Members of the committee said they were concerned about reports of the Voting Section filing fewer lawsuits challenging voting practices and procedures.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., expressed his concern, telling Tanner, "We need to do a lot more in your section. You tell us it's never been better, but it's never been worse."