Rand Paul Was Right About Republican Vote Suppression

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Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images/Getty

Last week, Rand Paul edgily, and correctly, urged his fellow Republicans to make peace with African-Americans by maybe not trying so hard to prevent them from voting. Yesterday, Paul’s senior adviser, Paul Doug Stafford, explained what Paul really meant. And what he really meant was … well, not very much:

In the course of that discussion, he reiterated a point he has made before that while there may be some instances of voter fraud, it should not be a defining issue of the Republican Party, as it is an issue that is perhaps perceived in a way it is not intended,” Stafford said in a statement Monday. “In terms of the specifics of voter ID laws, Senator Paul believes it's up to each state to decide that type of issue.

Voting is already handled at the state level. Throwing up your hands and letting the states decide means Republicans can keep on keepin’ on erecting bureaucratic impediments to voting. Keep in mind, though, that Paul’s original heterodoxy didn’t take him very far out on a limb. What he told the Times was, “Everybody’s gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing. I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.” Paul was not arguing against vote suppression on moral grounds but practical grounds (“it’s offending people”). He wasn’t asking Republicans to stop engaging in vote suppression altogether. Taken literally, he wasn’t even asking them to stop being crazy about vote suppression. He was just asking them not to be too crazy.

As a political instinct, Paul’s original, pre-walkback line was probably shrewd. Vote suppression tactics have suffered a series of legal setbacks. Federal courts in Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania have all struck down Republican-drafted laws designed to restrict voting. Two judges who originally upheld voter-ID laws, John Paul Stevens and Richard Posner, have repudiated their original support.

The political logic of constructing impediments to voting appears perfectly sound. Voting is a fundamentally irrational act, in the sense that it confers no tangible benefit. Making it less convenient is likely to discourage voters with the least flexibility and wherewithal, shearing a small, disproportionately Democratic slice of voters off the electorate. The photo-ID requirement poses no obstacle to the 89 percent of us who own one. But to the 11% percent of Americans (and 25 percent of African-Americans) who lack one, the impediment is substantial. Imagine you had to travel to the DMV or some other state office to get a card merely so you can vote. If you can’t drive and probably lack much job flexibility, that’s not a burden you’re likely to take on without enormous motivation. The widespread Republican drive to limit polling stations and restrict early and weekend voting has the same effect.

People wait in line to vote at the North Miami Public Library on November 1, 2012 in North Miami, Florida. Voters are complaining about hours long waits in line to cast their ballots and former Florida governor, Charlie Crist, as well as state Democrats, have asked Florida Governor Rick Scott to extend early voting hours for all the state’s counties. Rick Scott authorized a law limiting voting days to 8 from 14. Photo: Joe Raedle/2012 Getty Images

The trouble, for Republicans, is that vote suppression creates an opposing force. It allows Democrats to (correctly) place Republicans within the history of odious tactics designed to limit the political power of minorities, and thus making the act of voting itself a form of political protest. Conservatives like Ross Douthat have argued that vote suppression probably inspires more Democrats to register and vote than it keeps away from the polls.

Paul’s original point got at the dilemma in a different way. Smart Republican strategists understand that, even though their party will never win the black vote, the marginal difference between winning 10 to 15 percent of the black vote, as the party did not long ago, and winning 5 percent of the black vote is substantial. The GOP is never going to rebuild its reputation when they are upholding such an odious American tradition. The Republican candidate who rebuilds his party’s reputation with black America is probably not going to be the one who disagrees with major sections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and has surrounded himself with white supremacists. But the broader strategy Paul is identifying makes enough sense that somebody is bound to eventually take it up, even if it’s not him.

Update: Tuesday, Paul spoke with Sean Hannity, and abandoned his deviation completely. Paul assured Hannity he fully agrees with the Republican vote suppression strategy on substance, and that his only argument is that Republicans should "emphasize" other issues without changing their policies:

I'm satisfied. Photo: Uri Schanker/WireImage

PAUL: No I agree, there’s nothing wrong with it. To see Eric Holder you’ve got to show your drivers license to get in the building. So I don’t really object to having some rules for how we vote. I show my drivers license every time I vote in Kentucky…and I don’t feel like it is a great burden. So it’s funny that it got reported that way.

But I do mean what I said, that Republicans need to be aware that there is a group of voters that I’m trying to court and that we should be trying to court who do see it as something directed towards them. So that’s why what I’ve been trying to emphasize is not voter-ID, but trying to emphasize that I would like to give people back the right to vote if they committed a youthful non-violent crime and have served their time. I think you do get a second chance in life. I believe in redemption as a Christian. And I think also the law should allow people who committed youthful crimes to get their voting rights back.

HANNITY: Why are people so offended by this? Anybody offended by the idea that they have to present an identification to show that they are who they say they are… Why is that so offensive to people?

PAUL: Like I say, I think both sides have made mistakes in…this issue. But it’s mainly in presentation and perception, not in reality. In the sense that, if Republicans are going to go around the country and this becomes a central theme and issue, you have to realize, rightly or wrongly, it is being perceived by some — and this is the point I was making and I think it’s still a valid point, that I’m trying to go out and say to African Americans ‘I want your vote and the Republican Party wants your vote’. If they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that showing their ID is an attempt to get them not to vote because they perceive it in the lineage of a time when it truly did happen through poll taxes and questioning to try and prevent people, if they perceive it that way, we have to be aware that the perception is out there and be careful about not so overdoing something that we further alienate a block of people we need to attract.