Earlier this month, the Department of Justice's top official overseeing voting rights, John Tanner, made some insensitive comments about elderly and minority voters at a Latino forum in Los Angeles, raising eyebrows in the voting rights community and prompting Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama to call for his ouster on Friday.
But the greater outrage, according to civil rights lawyers across the country, is how the Department's Voting Section has turned away from defending minorities that are seen as supporting Democrats -- African Americans and Native Americans -- while instead focusing on another minority that is seen as a Republican swing vote -- Latinos.
"It may be cynical, but it may also be true," said Julie Fernandes, senior policy analyst and special counsel for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, "that the enforcement for Latinos has been more vigorous because they see it as more in their political interest -- their partisan interest."
Next week, the House Judiciary Committee will hold an oversight hearing on the Voting Section, whose duty is to implement the nation's voting rights laws. While the firing of several federal prosecutors who did not pursue partisan voter fraud cases has garnered national headlines, the Voting Section's enforcement record has had far less scrutiny.
The Voting Section "did not file any cases on behalf of African-American voters during a five-year period between 2001 and 2006, and no cases have been brought on behalf of Native-American voters for the entire administration," Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights told the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on June 21, 2007.
This summer and fall, Voting Section Chief John Tanner and other top attorneys have been reaching out to civil rights groups -- particularly Latinos -- with appearances to tout the Section's record since Tanner became chief in mid-2005. Their message, which will no doubt be repeated before the House Judiciary Committee next week, is under Tanner the Section has doubled the lawsuits filed -- most notably to enforce laws concerning bilingual election materials and assistance for Hispanic and Asian voters.
It was during an appearance at the National Latino Congresso in Los Angeles in early October where Tanner, after being challenged by voting rights activists such as Alan Breslauer of BradBlog.com, said minority voters are less likely to be impacted than senior citizens by voter I.D. laws because they tend to have shorter life spans. That remark prompted Sen. Obama to call for Tanner's ouster on Friday.
"Such comments are patently erroneous, offensive, and dangerous and they are especially troubling coming from the federal official charged with protecting voting rights," Obama said in a letter to Acting Attorney General Peter Keisler.
"John Tanner ... is a dedicated career civil servant who has worked for decades to protect voting rights," said Justice Department Spokesman Brian Roehrkasse, responding to Sen. Obama on Friday. "Under Mr. Tanner's leadership, the Voting Section has doubled its production in lawsuits, from an average of eight new cases a year to 16 new cases. It has brought over twice as many lawsuits under the minority language provisions of the Voting Rights Act in five years as in the previous 32 years combined... including the first cases in history on behalf of Filipino, Vietnamese and Korean voters."
This past Thursday -- a day before Obama's letter became public -- Tanner and a Voting Section associate spoke at the University of California Berkeley at an event sponsored by Center for Latino Policy Research and the Election Administration Research Center. He spoke of his background fighting for the rights of African-Americans in Alabama in the 1960s and touted the Voting Section's current record on minority language lawsuits -- especially on behalf of Latino voters.
"There is nothing in the world that is better than making an election process open and fair to more people," Tanner said, ending an hour-long talk where he encouraged students and others to pursue careers in election administration and voting rights law. Tanner outlined his agency's historic mission, saying "the current focus has changed once again, and it is much more focused on the treatment of voters on Election Day." He said the Section has worked on behalf of Native Americans, citing a 1993 suit that was amended in January.
"We are in the midst of the most vigorous minority language enforcement program in the history of the Voting Rights Act," Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, said Voting Section Acting Deputy Chief. During the past five years, the Section has brought 26 such suits on behalf of Latino voters, she said, compared to a total of three suits in the previous 25 years.
But civil rights attorneys -- especially those who work with Latino voters -- are troubled by the Voting Section's record on enforcing minority rights, including those populations helped by the Department's lawsuits to provide bilingual materials and assistance.
The administration has placed tremendous resources into enforcing the minority language requirements of law, these attorneys say, especially as it affects Hispanic and Asian voters. While those actions are important and have been shown in recent academic studies to increase Latino registration by 17 percent and voter turnout by 10-to-14 percent, these attorneys say language barriers are not the most significant election problem facing their communities.
Moreover, when the minority language suits are contrasted with the Administration's sparse record of suing on behalf of African-American and Native-American voters, it looks like the Voting Section is selectively enforcing laws with partisan overtones -- because Latinos are seen as a constituency that increasingly is voting for the GOP.
In 2000, the nation's six million Latino voters were mostly concentrated in California, Texas and other Southwestern states and split their presidential votes between Al Gore and George W. Bush. In 2004, those numbers had grown and President Bush received more Latino votes than any previous Republican presidential candidate. GOP political strategists hailed that shift as a major achievement. Meanwhile, the number of elected Latino officials has grown during the past decade, including in states like Illinois and New Jersey where African-Americans have long held office. Latinos now comprise 5 percent or more of the electorate in 30 states, and various surveys have found that the constituency is split between Democratic and Republican leanings.