Rand Paul’s Voter ID Walkback

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 14 2014 10:15 AM

Rand Paul’s Voter ID Walkback

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He has radical thoughts on voting rights, but not the ones you think.

Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

On Monday, rather late to the game, I asked whether Rand Paul's ballyhooed interview with the New York Times signaled a shift in how he'd talk about voter ID. "I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people," he said. Lots of people read the comments the way I'd read them. "Republicans should focus less on the issue of voter ID and more on identifying voters in all parts of this country who might cast ballots for them," wrote GOP strategist/pundit John Feehery.

Yet careful readers/people who refresh their pages probably noticed the update I put on the post. After I wrote a definitive headline about Paul "giving up" on voter ID, Paul's communications shop gave me a statement from PAC director Doug Stafford that clarified the quote.

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"[Paul] 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," said Stafford. "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."

On Twitter, I noticed that the conservative lawyer J. Christian Adams took a little swipe at my initial post and suggested it would be inactive soon. Sure enough, Paul appeared on Sean Hannity's TV show to explain that the NYT—oh, those crazy kids—overhyped the quote. He was not bailing on voter ID.

"There’s nothing wrong with it," he said. He explained himself with a common conservative talk radio trope. "To see Eric Holder you’ve got to show your driver's license to get in the building. So I don’t really object to having some rules for how we vote. I show my driver's 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."

Paul had been trying to say that the voter ID push looked bad for Republicans as they sought out black votes. True! His solution was not to challenge the march of ID laws, but to couple them with sensible reforms to restore the votes of felons. He could have answered Hannity's follow-up (Why do these hyenas have such a problem with voter ID) by pointing to the evidence that black voters are less likely to have valid cards, or agreed with Michael Steele that voter ID offends fewer people. But that wasn't his point. 

The irony is that Paul's felon-voting stance is plenty radical all by itself. Go back to the stories of felon-voting laws from after the 2000 election. The reaction to the 1970s/1980s crime waves has a long tail, turning plenty of minor-looking crimes (listening in to a police radio in Florida, for example) into felonies. This ended up being a net benefit to Republicans, and, being in the business of winning elections, few hurried to change the laws. As recently as 2012, Mitt Romney could run ads scorching Rick Santorum for daring to support felon voter restoration. Paul didn't "evolve" on voter ID, but he really has developed a daring policy change after talking extensively to black voters and leaders.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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