Meet the Surprise GOP Defector on Voter-ID Laws

By Chris Hoenig

One of the faces of the current Republican Party—and one of its most vocal leaders—is breaking ranks on a key issue pushed by the GOP.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who is one of the most visible leaders of the Tea Party movement and is largely expected to run for President in 2016, says he no longer supports restrictive—and racist—voter-ID laws.

But while Paul is not inclined to push for a federal law that requires a photo ID at polls, it’s not the nature of the law itself that has changed Paul’s mind, but rather the way Republicans are approaching it. “Everybody’s gone completely crazy on this voter-ID thing,” Paul said in a New York Times interview. “I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.”

After insensitive comments from Mitt Romney helped cost Republicans the White House in 2012, Paul doesn’t believe that the GOP should be pushing too strongly on issues that will further alienate voters, even if they’re more likely to vote Democrat anyway. During a stop in Memphis for a Republican National Committee meeting, he told reporters that he’s met many people who tell him: “I like what you’re saying. I’m still not voting for you.”

“That’s why you’ve got to keep saying it,” he said.

Paul—whose father, former Texas Congressman and Presidential candidate Ron Paul, is considered an unofficial founder of the Tea Party—has said in the past that he doesn’t think the requirements laid out in voter-ID laws are unreasonable, and he did not walk back those beliefs in his latest comments. Instead, he said that voter-ID laws should be left to individual states.

Since the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 last year, as many as 30 states, mostly under the control of Republican state legislatures, have considered laws that not only require photo IDs at the polls, but also limit early and extended voting hours—all restrictions that unfairly target Blacks, Latinos and poor voters.

Federal judges have already overturned laws in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, while Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice have filed lawsuits to strike laws in North Carolina and Texas—where the law finds that birth certificates alone are not even enough proof, and IDs must have a person’s current, legal name, a restriction that also targets women.

Paul’s home state of Kentucky has not passed such a measure.

The issue of voter-ID laws has become one of the most divisive in politics today. Democrats say Republicans are passing the laws only to try to prevent groups of people that largely vote Democrat from being able to cast a ballot. Republicans say the measures are necessary to combat voter fraud, although no evidence suggests that voter fraud is really an issue.

While in Memphis, Paul tried to portray himself as someone who wants to further extend voting rights, not restrict them. “The bigger issue actually is whether you get to vote if you have a felony conviction,” he said. “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.”

But Paul’s message was met with skepticism by many local Democrats. “Get real, Senator,” G.A. Hardaway of the Tennessee General Assembly wrote in a letter. “To come here, to Memphis of all places, and espouse the principles and ‘goodness’ of today’s Republican Party,” he added. “Excuse me if I’m not buying it.”

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a fellow Tea Party favorite who’s expected to run for the White House, stands in stark contrast to Paul, and continues to perpetuate the voter-fraud myth. He says that while it is unfortunate that it is “minority voters who are the victims of that fraud,” he believes that voter-ID laws are an integral part of maintaining the legitimacy of our democracy and that the government “should not be working to undermine the integrity of our elections.”

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