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Justice Official: Race Remark "Hurtful"

The chief of the Justice Department's voting rights division apologized Tuesday for saying that aging is not a problem with black voters because they die before they become elderly, unlike whites.

Still, some Democrats said they want him fired.

"I want to apologize for the comments I made at the recent meeting of the National Latino Congreso about the impact of voter identification laws on elderly and minority voters," said John Tanner, voting section chief of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

"My explanation of the data came across in a hurtful way, which I deeply regret," he told the House subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties.

That wasn't good enough for some Democrats, who accused Tanner of policymaking and analysis without facts to back it up. Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., last week called for Tanner's firing.

Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., said that in the 2004 presidential race, for example, the same percentage of eligible black voters as whites cast ballots in his state. But of those groups, more blacks over age 60 voted than whites in the same age group.

Tanner, who said he too is from Alabama, said he was unaware of those statistics.

"You engaged in an analysis without knowing the numbers," Davis told Tanner. "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 is well documented that black Americans - particularly black males - have shorter life expectancies than whites. A black person born in 2004 had an average life expectancy of 73.1 years, about five years less than for whites, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

At issue are Tanner's remarks Oct. 5 before the National Latino Congreso in Los Angeles. Tanner addressed state laws that require photo identification for voting, saying that elderly voters disproportionately don't have the proper IDs.

"That's a shame, you know, creating problems for elderly persons just is not good under any circumstance," Tanner said, according to video posted on YouTube. "Of course, that also ties into the racial aspect because our society is such that minorities don't become elderly the way white people do. They die first.

"There are inequities in health care. 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," Tanner added.

Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the full House Judiciary Committee, said the comment demonstrates "a severe lack of appreciation of what the section's mission should be: that minority voters should not be disenfranchised."

Conyers and other Democrats complained about Tanner's stewardship of the voting section, and subcommittee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the hearing had been scheduled more than two months before Tanner made the comments. The proceedings, however, were postponed until the Justice Department could make Tanner available to testify, Nadler said.

Tanner has come under fire for clearing a Georgia law that requires voters to show government-issued photo IDs at the polls. A subsequent photo ID law was upheld by a federal judge last month.

Opponents say photo ID laws will disenfranchise minorities, the poor and the elderly who don't have driver's licenses or other valid government-issued photo IDs. Supporters of such laws say they are needed to prevent voter fraud.

The Supreme Court has agreed to consider Indiana's photo ID law, which is similar to Georgia's, this term.