Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama said Friday the head of the Justice Department's voting rights division should be fired for saying voter ID laws hurt the elderly but aren't a problem for minorities because they often die before old age.
John Tanner's remarks came during an Oct. 5 panel discussion on minority voters 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 said.
Tanner declined a request for an interview Friday to explain his remarks.
Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin said Tanner had worked for the department's voting section since 1976, the last two years as its chief. Tanner's tenure also includes a stint in the White House counsel's office during the Clinton administration.
"Mr. Tanner is an attorney who works to protect civil rights on a daily basis," Ablin said, adding that the official had won numerous awards from African-American groups. "Nothing in his comments deviated from his firm commitment to enforce the law, and it is unfortunate that they have been so grossly misconstrued."
In a letter to the Justice Department, sent Friday, Obama called Tanner's remarks a disgrace and asked Acting Attorney General Peter D. Keisler to dismiss him.
"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.
Ablin said the Justice Department "continues to have full confidence" in Tanner, effectively rejecting Obama's demand that the voting chief be dismissed.
It is well documented that black Americans — particularly black males — have shorter life expectancies than whites. But blacks do live to become senior citizens.
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.
Obama also criticized Tanner for clearing a Georgia law that requires voters to show government-issued photo IDs at the polls. It 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 this term. Indiana's law is similar to Georgia's.