WASHINGTON — The Justice Department's embattled voting-rights chief took responsibility Tuesday for approving a controversial Georgia law that required voters to produce photo IDs, contending that data showed the law wouldn't make it harder for blacks to vote.
In long-awaited testimony to a House Judiciary subcommittee, John Tanner also apologized for what he called a recent "clumsy" public statement defending the Georgia decision. He told a Hispanic group early this month that the ID requirement didn't unfairly impact poor, elderly blacks because African-Americans "don't become elderly the way white people do. They die first."
Saying he was bound by department policy, Tanner declined to confirm that he reversed the recommendation of career staffers who had urged that the department use its authority under the Voting Rights Act to challenge the Georgia law. A federal judge later blocked implementation of the law, likening it to a Jim Crow-era poll tax because poor voters lacking driver's licenses were required to buy a photo ID card.
A former Voting Rights Section statistician, Toby Moore, promptly challenged Tanner's testimony, telling the panel that Tanner had engaged in "deliberate misuse of statistics" in enforcement decisions.
Moore also contradicted Tanner's denial that the four career staffers who made the recommendations were reprimanded, saying each was called in and privately told his work "was not up to Justice Department standards."
Tanner asserted that the Voting Rights Section filed 18 suits in 2006, double the average for the preceding 30 years, and is functioning well. He also said all decisions "are based solely on the facts and the law."
But Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers, the full committee chairman, said that sounded odd, noting that only one suit has been initiated and filed on behalf of African-American voting rights under the Bush administration.
Conyers, who's in his 22nd House term, told Tanner that since 2000 he's heard more charges of voting irregularities than at any time in the decades he's served on the committee.
He said the committee must further explore the Voting Rights Section, calling it "the most sensitive" part of the Justice Department.
Former department voting rights employees and civil rights groups have rained criticism on Tanner and the department for the Georgia decision. They charge that political appointees backed voter ID laws and other measures aimed at curbing voter fraud, something they called a nonexistent problem as part of an administration strategy to deter Democratic-leaning minorities from voting.
But Tanner, a career employee, told Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the subcommittee chairman: "I made the decision, Mr. Chairman. I'd like to make that clear."
Tanner's testimony provided some insulation for Hans von Spakovsky, a voting counsel to the Civil Rights Division from 2003 to 2005, who's been accused of partisanship and whose nomination to the Federal Election Commission is stalled in the Senate.
Tanner, who joined the Civil Rights Division in 1976, also worked briefly in the mid-1990s for the Clinton White House counsel's office and for the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 2005, three years after he returned to the Voting Rights Section, he was named chief when its leaders resigned, disgruntled over the policies of von Spakovsky and acting civil rights chief Bradley Schlozman.
Soon after Tanner took the helm, the unit faced a decision whether to approve or object to the Georgia law under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which gave the department 60 days to decide.
Tanner said that he "entered the process ... with a presumption that we would interpose an objection.
"My presumption ran into the facts," he said, citing data that he said showed that more people than expected had the required identification cards, and that "minorities were slightly more likely than white persons" to possess IDs.
He offered little explanation, however, as to why he rushed the Aug. 26, 2005, decision a day after receiving the staff recommendation — and on the same day that Georgia submitted data showing that 600,000 eligible voters lacked driver's licenses.
When Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison pressed Tanner several times as to why he apologized for his remarks about elderly blacks, Tanner fumbled for words.
"I had a bad tone and clumsiness," he said.
However, earlier this year, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that life expectancy for African-American men was 6.33 years less than for white men in 2003, a gap 25 percent less than in 1993 because young black men showed reductions in deaths from homicide, AIDS and injuries.