Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Progess Report

October 30, 2007
by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Jeremy Richmond, and Ali Frick

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John Tanner's Erosion Of Voting Rights

John K. Tanner, head of the Voting Rights Section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, will testify this morning before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties about the erosion of civil rights and the politicization of justice that has marked the division during the Bush administration. Tanner, whose testimony was originally blocked by the Justice Department, will enter the hearing room under a cloud of controversy. Earlier this month, while speaking to National Latino Congreso in Los Angeles, Tanner infuriated progressives and civil rights activists by claiming that voter ID laws actually discriminate against whites because "minorities...die first." Veteran career attorneys from the voting rights section, including Tanner's predecessor Joe Rich, disputed Tanner's analysis, calling it "ludicrous" and "false." Now several members of Congress, including subcommittee chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), are calling on the Justice Department to consider disciplinary action against Tanner, which could include firing him. Tanner apologized for his comments recently, saying that his "explanation of the data came across in a hurtful way," but he refused to recant his claim that voter ID laws actually discriminate against whites. During today's hearing, Tanner will be forced to explain himself and defend his department's diminished credibility over the past six years.

POLITICS OVER JUSTICE IN OHIO: On election day 2004, "5,000 to 15,000 frustrated voters" in mostly African-American precincts were estimated to have been "turned away" from voting centers in Ohio's Franklin County "without casting ballots" because of lines that lasted up to seven hours. The main reason for the long lines was a shortage of voting machines, a phenomenon that appeared to heavily benefit President Bush as "27 of the 30 wards with the most machines per registered voter showed majorities for Bush" while "six of the seven wards with the fewest machines delivered large margins for Kerry." John Tanner was tasked with investigating the matter, but conducted it in a manner that appeared to intentionally "hamper future lawsuits or investigations concerning the problems" in Ohio. After concluding that "Franklin County assigned voting machines in a non-discriminatory manner" and the extended waits at predominantly African-American polling places were a result of "the tendency...for black voters to cast ballots in the afternoon (i.e., after work)," Tanner wrote a detailed letter to Columbus, OH officials to inform them of his conclusion. Career voting rights section attorneys told TPM Muckraker that not only was Tanner's analysis faulty, but such a letter was an "unprecedented" move that would "poison the well" for future investigations. "Tanner bent over backwards to rule that black voters did not have a right to the same number of machines as white registered voters, and then went out of his way to make that ruling public," said David Becker, a former attorney with the section.

APPROVING A 'MODERN DAY POLL TAX': In 2005, a team of Justice Department lawyers and analysts who reviewed a Georgia voter-identification law recommended rejecting it because it was likely to discriminate against black voters. Critics of the law called it "a modern day poll tax." One of the reasons cited for recommending rejection of the law was that Georgia state Rep. Sue Burmeister (R), the sponsor of the bill, appeared to have racially-tinged motivations, telling the section staff that "if there are fewer black voters because of this bill, it will only be because there is less opportunity for fraud," and that "when black voters in her black precincts are not paid to vote, they do not go to the polls." But the career attorneys were overruled by political appointees, including John Tanner, and the law was approved the next day. A few weeks after the decision was made, the four attorneys who had argued against the law "were called in one by one to speak" to Tanner, who subsequently criticized them for their work on the Georgia ID memo. They were also criticized for disagreeing with the fresh-out-of-law-school Republican-hired attorney who worked with them. Instead of meeting with Tanner, the conservative lawyer, Joshua Rogers, was "called over to main Justice and commended for his work on the case." The career attorneys' analysis of the law was vindicated, however, when a federal appeals court judge eventually issued an injunction against the law, likening it to a Jim Crow-era poll tax.

THE NEED FOR ACCOUNTABILITY: Today's hearing is a first step towards righting the wrongs that have occurred in the Justice Department's Voting Rights Section under John Tanner, but more is needed. In written questions to attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey last week, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) asked Mukasey to review Tanner's record and to consider whether he should continue in his position. Kennedy said that Tanner's remarks -- "minorities don't become elderly the way white people do" -- "display a shameful lack of understanding and sensitivity that is unacceptable in the person charged with enforcing the nation's laws against voting discrimination." Though Mukasey said in his confirmation hearing "that career attorneys in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division will know their job is to enforce anti-discrimination laws designed to overcome past injustices," his answers to Kennedy's concerns about Tanner will be another important factor in considering whether he should ultimately be confirmed.

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