WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama on Friday demanded the Justice Department fire one of its officials over remarks made about elderly minorities not aging like white Americans, because they die first. Pointing to comments made by Voting Section Chief John Tanner at a Los Angeles event earlier this month, Obama called the language “erroneous, offensive, and dangerous.”
The Justice Department Friday was quick to come to the defense of Tanner. Calling him a “dedicated career civil servant who has worked for decades to protect the voting rights of all Americans”, Justice spokesman Erik Ablin said Tanner’s comments were “grossly misconstrued.” “The Department continues to have full confidence in Mr. Tanner’s leadership of the Voting Section based on the Section’s vigorous enforcement of federal law during his tenure.” Obama, D-Ill., called for Tanner’s removal following an Oct. 5 panel discussion at the National Latino Congreso at which Tanner was asked about voter ID laws, and Tanner’s controversial decision two years ago to override a staff recommendation to approve a Georgia voter ID law. In a letter directed to Acting Attorney General Peter Keisler, Obama on Friday pointed to one portion of Tanner’s comments as evidence that voter ID restrictions “do not disenfranchise minorities, and in fact they actually benefit minorities.”
“Our society is such that minorities don’t become elderly the way white people do; they die first,” Tanner said. “There are inequities in health care,” Tanner continued. “There are a variety of inequities in this country. And so anything that disproportionately impacts the elderly has the opposite impact on minorities; just the math is such as that.”
Obama said in his letter: “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.” “For Mr. Tanner to now suggest, in an effort to defend his erroneous decision, that photo identification are not necessary for minority voters because ‘they die first’ shows just how far the Justice Department has fallen,” Obama wrote.
Ablin said that Tanner was just responding to a question about ID laws’ effects on elderly voters. “Nothing in his comments deviated from his firm commitment to enforce the law, and it is unfortunate that they have been so grossly misconstrued,” Ablin said. Unlike racial minorities, the elderly are a group beyond the jurisdiction of the Voting Rights Act, and therefore a group that the Justice Department can’t consider when deciding voting rights issues. Albin said the Justice Department plans to work to resolve the issue with Obama. “We will respond to Senator Obama’s letter in due course through our ordinary channels of communication.”