The New York Times
November 5, 2007
In Defense of Voting Rights
A House Judiciary subcommittee was the site of a sad spectacle the other day: John Tanner, who heads the Justice Department’s voting section, trying to explain offensive, bigoted comments he made about minority voters. It was a shameful moment that crystallized the need for immediate steps to fight for the rights that Mr. Tanner has been working so hard to undermine.
The administration should, of course, fire Mr. Tanner. Congress should pass a bill to criminalize deceptive campaign practices. And it should reject a pending nominee to the Federal Election Commission, Hans von Spakovsky.
The Justice Department has a long history of protecting the voting rights of minorities. In the Bush administration, the department’s voting rights section has been taken over by ideologues most interested in denying the ballot to minorities, poor people and other groups likely to vote Democratic.
The Justice Department endorsed a Georgia law that would have required many voters to pay for voter IDs, a requirement that a federal judge rightly likened to a poll tax. Mr. Tanner said publicly that blacks are not hurt by ID requirements as much as whites because “they die first.” He was assuming that ID laws disadvantage elderly voters, because they are less likely to have driver’s licenses. And in Mr. Tanner’s world, blacks are likely to die before they become elderly.
As Representative Artur Davis, Democrat of Alabama, made clear in pointed questions, Mr. Tanner had no factual basis for making this claim. Mr. Davis noted that in Alabama, data from the 2004 election showed that blacks over 60 voted at a higher rate than whites over 60.
Mr. Tanner also suggested that black people are likely to have an ID because they need it when they go to check-cashing stores. Again, Mr. Davis showed that Mr. Tanner relied on stereotypes. Then a former employee of the voting section testified that Mr. Tanner regularly used “broad generalizations” and misused statistics.
There have been calls for Mr. Tanner to be removed, and he should be, but that is not enough. The Senate must refuse to confirm Mr. von Spakovsky, an anti-voting-rights advocate cut from the same cloth as Mr. Tanner, to the F.E.C. Based on his record, Mr. von Spakovsky would use the job to undermine the right to vote.
Congress should also pass the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, sponsored by Senator Barack Obama, which would criminalize misleading and intimidating actions used to prevent voters, particularly minority voters, from casting ballots.
This administration seems to believe that the right to vote is something only Democrats should care about. It is too important to be reduced to a partisan issue.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company