Rand Paul Is Giving Up on Voter ID. Who’s Next?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 12 2014 4:40 PM

Rand Paul Is Giving Up on Voter ID. Who’s Next?

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I may or may not support voter IDs, but I'm thinking hard about them, clearly.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Rand Paul really has had an excellent May. He flew into Charlotte last week for an eleventh-hour rally with Greg Brannon, an inexperienced but passionate candidate who'd osmosed in the Paul family's politics. Brannon lost, the media moved on, and by Friday—instead of investigating the foibles of a Paul-backed fringe candidate—the press was back on the Rand Paul, Superstar narrative. Before he spoke to an RNC meeting, but after he met with Memphis, Tennessee pastors, Paul told Jeremy Peters that his party had to back down on voter ID.

“Everybody’s gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing,” Mr. Paul said in an interview. “I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.” ...
“There’s 180,000 people in Kentucky who can’t vote. And I don’t know the racial breakdown, but it’s probably more black than white because they’re convicted felons. And I’m for getting their right to vote back, which is a much bigger deal than showing your driver’s license.”
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Paul has said this about felon voting rights before, and it's been a healthy three months since he actually testified in Frankfort for a change to state laws, but the "voter ID" thing hit like a grenade. A year ago, at Howard University, Paul had defended the standard Republican position that voter ID laws did not constitute much of a burden. Since then he has assiduously traveled to black communities, and the conversations really do seem to have changed his thinking. At that time, True the Vote—a "voter integrity" group that grew out of the Tea Party—praised Paul's #realtalk.

But that group has said nothing publicly about Paul's new quote, and did not respond when I asked for a comment. There's been no notable right-wing backlash at all. That's partly a sign of Paul's clout within the movement and the party and partly the result of years of liberal pushback. I keep pointing out, almost to the point of tedium, that North Carolina Republicans avoid discussing the less popular elements of their voter ID law. To see why they do that, look to Minnesota, where a voter ID measure was put on the 2012 ballot and went from 80 percent support to defeat. As the issue's been politicized, and as Democrats have begun to see it as a backdoor way of supressing votes, support has cratered.

Ari Berman points to another catalyst: losses in the courts. The more hurriedly constructed laws in places like Wisconsin have been tossed, by judges warning of potential suppression. People notice things like that. Steve Chapman, a libertarian columnist I used to work with at Reason, used his space today to deride the claims of widespread fraud that justify new ID laws. "Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott brags of successfully prosecuting 50 cases of election fraud," he wrote. "But the list his office sent me included only three cases in six years of someone being charged with voter impersonation at a polling place."

Chapman could have gone further. Last week Iowa's Republican secretary of state, Matt Schultz, released the results of a two-year investigation into possible vote fraud. He got the early headlines he wanted: There had, indeed, been illegal voting in Iowa, at a rate as high as 0.008427933 percent. But there had been no voter impersonation. Illegal votes had come, allegedly, from people who had committed felonies or had voted in two states. None of that could have been stopped with a one-state ID law.

Oh, there's one more reason why Paul might win this argument. Republicans have passed voter ID laws that are unlikely to be overturned in the next few years. (Gerrymandered state legislatures in Wisconsin and North Carolina, for example, won't quickly flip back to the Democrats.) If the GOP stopped right now and passed no more voter ID laws, it'd still have plenty on the books in key states. A fine time to pull up the ladder.

UPDATE: And yet ... this statement comes from Paul's former chief of staff and current PAC director.

Senator Paul was having a larger discussion about criminal justice reform and restoration of voting rights, two issues he has been speaking about around the country and pushing for in state and federal legislation. 

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. At no point did Senator Paul come out against voter ID laws. In terms of the specifics of voter ID laws, Senator Paul believes it's up to each state to decide that type of issue.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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