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Obama: DOJ Official Must Be Fired

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) today called on the Justice Department to fire a top official over controversial comments the official made about minorities.

John K. Tanner, chief of the voting rights section in the Justice Department's civil rights division, recently told a Latino group in Los Angeles that "minorities don't become elderly the way white people do. They die first."

Tanner's comments came during a discussion of voter-identification laws, which minority rights groups have objected to as an obstruction to their voting rights. [The video portion of Tanner's statement was first reported on and posted in Brad Blog.] Appearing before the National Latino Congreso, Tanner said elderly people are the most likely voters to not have driver's licenses and other forms of photo identification. This led to his assertion that minority deaths come earlier in life and, therefore, they would not be impacted by voter-ID laws.

"Anything that disproportionately impacts the elderly has the opposite impact on minorities -- just the math is such that," Tanner told the group.

Obama today wrote to acting Attorney General Peter D. Keisler saying Tanner "possesses neither the character nor the judgment" to hold his job.

"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," Obama wrote.

Tanner already came under fire for his decision to overrule career Justice Department lawyers who considered a similar ID requirement in Georgia to be discriminatory toward black voters.

"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. This is a disgrace," Obama wrote to Keisler.

The Justice Department dismissed Obama's request in a full-throated defense of Tanner and the entire civil rights division, but noted the effects of voting rights laws on the elderly are not something that can be considered under the Voting Rights Act.

Here is the rest of Justice's defense of Tanner from Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for the department:

"John Tanner ... is a dedicated career civil servant who has worked for decades to protect the voting rights of all Americans. Under Mr. Tanner's leadership, the Voting Rights Section has doubled its production in lawsuits, from an average of 8 new cases a year to 16 new cases. It has brought over twice as many lawsuits under the minority language provisions of the Voting Rights Act in five years as in the previous 32 years combined. It has in five years brought a majority of all cases under the substantive provisions of the Voting Rights Act on behalf of Hispanic and Asian voters in the 42-year history of the Act, including the first cases in history on behalf of Filipino, Vietnamese and Korean voters. Recently the Section won a lawsuit under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act on behalf of African Americans. Mr. Tanner has been honored by more African American citizen groups than any other attorney in the history of the Civil Rights Division, including awards from local voters' leagues and an NAACP group. Under the Voting Rights Act, the age of a voter or group of voters is irrelevant to the Department's review of a proposed change to voting practices or procedures. As the Voting Rights Act requires, the Department's consideration is limited to possible discrimination on the bases of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. Under those criteria, the Department was compelled to preclear the Georgia voter identification law. This was because the data showed that, in Georgia, the number of people who already possessed a valid photo identification greatly exceeded the total number of registered voters, and that there was no racial disparity in access to the identification cards."

By Paul Kane  |  October 19, 2007; 1:39 PM ET
Categories:  Branch vs. Branch , Senate  
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obama, the man made an observation and you have to keep your ignorance in check. should you be fired for any statement you have made. should we label you a traitor for siding with the enemy. stop screwing with peoples lives for the sake of your own politics.

Posted by: Dwight | October 19, 2007 4:15 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Obama. If not fired, Tanner should suffer some consequences of this statement. It was not an observation, but a blatantly racist statement.

Oh, and by the way, voting against attacking another country does not mean that Obama sided with the enemy. In fact his opinion is currently supported by the majority, so it's hard to say who is the enemy at this point.

Posted by: Alex | October 19, 2007 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Let me get this straight; Tanner thinks blacks don't get old and they always vote late because of that hidden reason bigots use all the time: laziness.
This better become a huge story.
And I can't wait til when Tanner testifies in 2 weeks to the House Judiciary Comm., whose chairman is a 78 year old African American, John Conyers.
The MSM does love squirming; maybe they'll cover this.

Posted by: SPENCER | October 19, 2007 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Right On, Obama!

John Tanner may have held his civil service job at the Justice Department for a few days too long. Had there been any real leadership in the Justice Department, Mr. Tanner would never have had the temerity to make such remarks in the first place.

Perhaps we should turn the tables and deny white voters enfranchisement, because they live too long and suffer disproportionately from dementia, Alzheimer's and other cognitive impairments. Maybe Asian voters should have to take vision tests before voting because they don't have round eyes. Maybe PhDs shouldn't be allowed to vote because they're just too darn smart for their own good. That is simply how ludicrous his statements are.

Further, as even the Justice Department noted, elderly voters aren't considered under the Voting Rights Act. For all of Tanner's years of experience, and service to minority communities, he doesn't know who the act covers.

But bottomline, Tanner and others who profess similar opinions like him in government must be held accountable for their beliefs. Tanner is wrong. Barack Obama is right.

Posted by: jade7243 | October 19, 2007 6:02 PM | Report abuse

four and a half million american citizens who live on the island of Puerto Rico and those who live in Guam, U.S. virgin Islands, the Mariannas and Samoa have been truly disenfranchised and considered less then second class citizens. The have served in all wars and are in Iraq and elsewhere laying down their lives and still being denied the right to choose their Commander in Chief! Mr. Tanner, suck on that one while I peel another!

Posted by: zfiguenew | October 19, 2007 8:10 PM | Report abuse

four and a half million american citizens who live on the island of Puerto Rico and those who live in Guam, U.S. virgin Islands, the Mariannas and Samoa have been truly disenfranchised and considered less then second class citizens. The have served in all wars and are in Iraq and elsewhere laying down their lives and still being denied the right to choose their Commander in Chief! Mr. Tanner, suck on that lemon while I peel another!

Posted by: zfiguenew | October 19, 2007 8:11 PM | Report abuse

I am Anglo-Euro-American and I believe that Tanner should be replaced for a different reason: He lacks the judgement to keep his unpopular beliefs to himself.

Posted by: freightliner | October 19, 2007 8:12 PM | Report abuse

four and a half million american citizens who live on the island of Puerto Rico and those who live in Guam, U.S. virgin Islands, the Mariannas and Samoa have been truly disenfranchised and considered less then second class citizens. The have served in all wars and are in Iraq and elsewhere laying down their lives and still being denied the right to choose their Commander in Chief! Mr. Tanner, suck on that lemon while I peel another!

Posted by: zfiguenew | October 19, 2007 8:13 PM | Report abuse

""John Tanner ... is a dedicated career civil servant who has worked for decades to protect the voting rights of all Americans..."

Blah, blah, blah. Fire the moog for incredible stupidy if for no other reason.

Posted by: Judge C. Crater | October 19, 2007 8:27 PM | Report abuse

I've admired B.O. thus far but he's beginning to wear thin. He seems to be the "Non-Hillary," "stiking out" (really!) on every issue, while neither he nor she have strong credentials. I'm beginning to favor Biden and Dodd more but, like someone else said in these pages, can't tell them apart.

Posted by: Wm. McKinley Hofstader | October 19, 2007 8:34 PM | Report abuse

It's a good thing Dr. Watson doesn't work for the DOJ or Obama would be after him like white on rice or is it stink on crap.
Oh well...whatever the complaint is just get your card stamped at the desk. Obama is quite the hybrid racist isn't he?

Posted by: linda in cincinnati | October 19, 2007 9:07 PM | Report abuse

please check 4 truth
i'm naughtsaying i agree or disagree just trying to find the fact from the fiction... if you removed the words innocent.... and amusement...... would an inn-tell-age-ant person argue the factuality or simply let it slide i'm often distracted bye the smoke.. when looking four the fire, i'mmmmm naught 2 brite

Posted by: artistkvip1 | October 19, 2007 9:27 PM | Report abuse

Tanner was talking about the population stats - and correctly stated them. Silencing people is what happened in Germany in the 1930s. I like Obama, but he is wrong on this one.

Posted by: disambiguate | October 19, 2007 10:21 PM | Report abuse

The statement from Mr. Tanner seems fairly lame on its face. If this man is a Bush appointee, that would probably explain it. Is there anyone Bush has ever appointed that should not be fired?

Posted by: SaraBB | October 19, 2007 10:37 PM | Report abuse

Lay off of Obama, he can say what he wants... as can Tanner- taking away his job is one thing, silencing him is another.

Asians live longer than Whites, and I daresay they would be a minority impacted by something affecting the elderly.

Tanner's comments are only vaguely accurate, and more importantly, they are clear signs of an ugly racist core. This core is fundamental to all of us, but there should be no tolerance of it being revealed in our government, lest we perpetuate it more than is needed.

Posted by: Michael | October 19, 2007 10:49 PM | Report abuse

There is no racism in Tanner's comment. Facts are facts and they have no personality. Tanner may have his biases, but from his past behavior he does not appear to have any that would be remarkable in this instance. He is one of the most celebrated by the NAACP and others. Obama is the best qualified of the democrats - my opinion - but he was wrong in this case.

Posted by: disambiguate | October 20, 2007 12:24 AM | Report abuse

yes, i concur.

hahhaha wack.

Posted by: yoh mamah | October 20, 2007 12:59 AM | Report abuse

The point that a great many members of the African American community die too young to receive back their social security contributions has been made by numerous economists, for example, during the debate about social security "privatization" (i.e., some little part of it). This is a matter of fact, of the sheer math of the matter! To condemn someone who now says it again is like condemning a scientist who correctly identifies a disease as occuring more frequently among members of a certain group--women, children, blacks, whites--than others. Omaba is showing some bad advice from his staff here.

Posted by: Tibor R. Machan | October 20, 2007 7:38 AM | Report abuse

This isn't a question about Tanner's motives. What he's suggesting is that because black and hispanic voters die earlier, they should not come under the same restrictions as everyone else. What absolute nonsense. I guess we should do the same for mentally disabled people, since they "die earlier" as well.

Posted by: Varun | October 20, 2007 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Sometimes people just need to see a spade for a spade. What Tanner said was unnecessary and poorly worded, if not racist. Even if he shouldn't be fired, he should be docked something for sheer stupidity.

Posted by: Varun | October 20, 2007 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Minor point: Tanner's statement that "minorities don't become elderly the way white people do. They die first..." is laughably false on the face of it. Human beings who are of minorities in this country do become elderly - by the millions - and they do the same way as whites. They don't go through a time warp to get there.

Major point: "There are lies, there are damn lies, and then there are statistics." Some of those who are defending Tanner seem to suggest that that he's being attacked as "racist" for the simple reason that he refers to an acknowledged statistic related to life-expectancy which observes the differences. But that's not what identifies Tanner's racism, or, at the very least, his racial insensitivity. There are millions of elderly minority voters, less in proportion when compared to those who began this life, but only marginally so... and so what? They are voters, and Tanner is supposed to protect and encourage their enfranchisement, not their disproportionate disenfranchisement. I don't know if Obama went on to clarify it - the problem is that Tanner used such a laughably clumsy reference to pooh-pooh concern over disproportionate disenfranchisement of minorities.

Is there really much of a difference between "racial insensitivity" and outright racism for someone who is in the position of guarding the voting rights of all? They can foster the same practical results, so I would say, "No, there isn't much of a difference."

Posted by: djond | October 20, 2007 10:19 AM | Report abuse

All of this incessant noise about the impact of voter ID laws . . . give it a rest already! Who doesn't have an ID in this day and age? Not everyone drives, you say? No problem. What ID do they show to cash checks or use debit/credit cards? It infringes on the "poor people" who can't afford IDs, you say? How poor are they? You need some form of ID to receive any kind of public assistance.

Maybe the question you should be asking is why don't minorities vote for Democrats? That's what all this smoke and mirrors is about, isn't it? Look at the mess both parties' have become. THAT is why people aren't voting.

As for the "four and a half million american citizens" who "have been truly disenfranchised . . . ?" Living in an American Territory grants you all the rights and privileges of American citizenship save one: you don't get to pay US income tax. That is why you have no voice. I'll happily trade you some representation for some taxation . . .

Posted by: Phil N. D'Oval | October 22, 2007 12:13 PM | Report abuse

I've had occasion to work with Mr. Tanner over the years on a number of voters' rights exercises, which occur when the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division (CRD) sends in Federal observers to assess the fairness of the electoral process, following the receipt of credible complaints on this score. He's always been the model of the impartial, incisive CRD attorney who diligently seeks to uncover and pursue evidence of unfair electoral practices, and one who has been relentless in ensuring the openness of the electoral process as the bedrock of our democracy. He is what the civil service system is all about at its best. His cited statement in no way reflects any deviation from his past record of public service. He voiced an unwelcome truth that many would prefer not to acknowledge, and is paying the usual "no good deed goes unpunished" penalty, as seen in the ad hominem attacks launched by the "usual suspects" in the chattering classes.

Posted by: TR | October 22, 2007 12:28 PM | Report abuse

The GOP have been very successful at blocking minorities from voting. Perhaps there is one minority that should be disqualified from voting. That is the top 1% that controls 21% of the wealth in this country. In fact, anyone with a six-figure income should also be disqualified for the same reason. They don't care about anyone or anything but themselves.

Posted by: Bleubeard | October 22, 2007 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Bluebeard says the very wealthy "don't care about anyone or anything but themselves." On the contrary, the wealthy are much like the poor--many of them vote against their own economic interests. Plenty of wealthy people support a fairer distribution of wealth. You'd be throwing the baby out with the bathwater to get rid of all of them.

Posted by: The wealthy | October 22, 2007 3:22 PM | Report abuse

I am inclined to agree with Tanner. The fact that freekin white people live so long is the real reason why we cannot have someone with a little bit of sense in the white house.

I am quite sure that if minorities only lived a little bit longer, the world would be a much safer place.

Posted by: Lloyd Harris | October 22, 2007 4:01 PM | Report abuse

even if one accepts Tanner's's still flawed....Maybe Tanner thinks there are only white elderly voters and not minority elderly voters.

Posted by: the it | October 22, 2007 7:51 PM | Report abuse

Some figures affecting Tanner's case, from (National Vital Statistics Reports, 54:14, April 19, 2006):

2003 life expectancy at birth: white 77.9, black 72.6 (Table A). A major factor, though not the only one, is infant mortality: 5.66 white babies dead in their first year, 13.25 black babies.

Life expectancy at age 65: white 18.4, black 16.8. As the it suggests, many minority elderly voters.

At age 80: life expectancy for both white and black is 8.8 (rounded, of course).

And at age 85, black life expectancy is higher; my uninformed guess is that blacks who make it that far rely more on tough constitutions and less on medicine.

Incidentally, the frequently made assertion that the original Social Security didn't expect to pay much out, because people didn't live much past 65, is incorrect. Table 11, page 30, gives life expectancy figures for 1929-31: at birth, all races, 59.20; but at age 65, 12.23 years more. Again, high infant mortality pulled down the at-birth expectations.

Posted by: iyenori | October 23, 2007 2:37 AM | Report abuse

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