Rand Paul sounds off on voter ID: Will it help the GOP with black voters?

Sen. Rand Paul says Republicans have "gone completely crazy" on voter identification. But he has his own history on race that makes African American voters skeptical of him and the GOP.

William DeShazer/The Commercial Appeal/AP
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul address the Republican National Committee spring meeting at the Peabody hotel in Memphis, Tenn., on Friday. Sen. Paul is urging the GOP to be more welcoming of non-white voters.

Sen. Rand Paul says his party – the GOP – has “gone completely crazy” on voter identification, turning off African American and other voters the Republican Party needs to attract if it’s to become more than the political home of older whites.

“Everybody’s gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing,” Sen. Paul said in an interview with the New York Times this week. “I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.”

It’s yet another example of Paul’s outlier status as he probes the possibility of a 2016 presidential campaign. But it’s not the first time he’s raised the issue in a party he sees as too cramped and insular.

Speaking to the county Republican organization in Houston in February, Paul warned that Texas "will be a Democratic state within 10 years if you don't change."

"That doesn't mean we give up on what we believe in, but it means we have to be a more welcoming party,” Paul said. “We have to welcome people of all races. We need to welcome people of all classes – business class, working class … We need a more diverse party. We need a party that looks like America.”

In Texas, that means attracting more Hispanics, who make up nearly 40 percent of voters there.

In the 2012 presidential race, Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the US Hispanic vote; Barack Obama won 71 percent. Among black voters, the spread was even worse for the GOP: 93-6 percent for Obama.

That Obama is the country’s first African American president may have had something to do with that. But Republicans didn’t do much better in previous elections when the race of the major party candidates wasn’t a factor. John Kerry beat George Bush 88-11 percent among blacks in 2004. In 2000, Al Gore beat Mr. Bush 90-9 percent.

In the New York Times interview, Paul also said he favors restoring voting rights to convicted felons.

“I don’t know the racial breakdown, but it’s probably more black than white,” he said, referring to the 180,000 people in his state of Kentucky who aren’t allowed to vote.. “And I’m for getting their right to vote back, which is a much bigger deal than showing your driver’s license” as voter ID. Paul also has pushed for changes to drug sentencing laws, under which African Americans are disproportionately convicted and imprisoned – often for minor, nonviolent crimes.

As Politico.com points out, opponents of voter ID laws argue that voter fraud is a rare problem, and that the real reason behind measures that require voters to produce specific identification, limit early voting, and other statutes is to effectively disenfranchise poor and minority voters who tend to support Democrats.

Paul may be ahead of the rest of his party in this regard – “progressive” or “libertarian,” depending on your point of view – but black voters and their leaders remain skeptical.

Any support he’s expressed for well-established civil rights laws has been qualified by his libertarian bent toward states’ rights. And before Cliven Bundy sounded off about “the Negro” in racist fashion (suggesting that African Americans may have been better off under slavery), Paul voiced support for the renegade Nevada rancher who refuses to pay federal grazing fees.

Paul didn’t exactly win over the Coalition of African American Pastors when he met with the group in Memphis Friday, although the exchange reportedly was respectful. And it’s unclear whether his message today will resonate – either with nonwhite American voters or with the Republican Party.

As he told Fox News on Friday, that message is straight-forward: “We have to have a bigger party, a more inclusive party, and when we do we’re going to be the dominant party again, but if we do the same thing we’ve always done, and say hey, we’re going after the same people, we’re going to get the same result and that’s not been good for us in presidential elections.”

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