Rand Paul versus Voter ID

Having previously suggested that the GOP might be pushing too hard for voter ID laws, likely 2016 presidential contender Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) went further in an interview with the New York Times while visiting Memphis this weekend:

“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.”

Mr. Paul becomes the most prominent member of his party — and among the very few — to distance himself from the voting restrictions and the campaign for their passage in states under Republican control, including North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin, that can determine presidential elections. Civil rights groups call the laws a transparent effort to depress black turnout.

Speaking here in a mostly black and Democratic city with its own painful history of racism, Mr. Paul said that much of the debate over voting rights had been swept up in the tempest of racial politics.

The senator has had his own struggles with civil rights issues, hedging at times on his support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And, notably, he did not on Friday denounce voter ID laws as bad policy or take back previous statements in which he had said it was not unreasonable for voters to be required to show identification at the polls. He says these laws should be left to the states. (Kentucky does not have a restrictive voter identification statute.)

So insisting on fair elections and the rule of law is “crazy” now?  The crazy has all been coming from the other side, as Democrats shamelessly demagogue the issue to score cheap points by telling minority audiences that voter ID is a racist voter suppression scheme.  This doesn’t seem to be enormously effective rhetoric from a persuasion standpoint, as minority groups tend to favor voter ID, albeit by lower margins than the general population.  But it seems to be effective from the most divisive political standpoint imaginable – effective enough to make Senator Paul think the best political response might be to effectively surrender to the demagoguery. 

Elsewhere in the interview, Paul talked about Republicans being “tone deaf” in the way they pursue the issue, which I gather means that simply insisting on fair elections is “tone deaf” unless the appeal is mixed with… what?  Copious assurances that voter ID proponents really, truly, seriously aren’t racists?  Personally, I’m all in favor of emphasizing that every fraudulent vote is a vote stolen from a legitimate member of the electorate – if you want to see people “disenfranchised” on a massive scale, keep the system deliberately primitive and ineffective enough to get a few thousand phony ballots through in each election.  

A winning voter-ID campaign should also take note of how the vast majority of people reflexively agree with such measures, when political hysteria is stripped out of the discussion.  Most of them already have suitable identification, such as a drivers’ license, and find nothing imposing about being asked to present it when they vote, any more than they recoil from the request to see a drivers’ license when they cash a check or board an airplane.  The vast majority of the small minority of people who don’t already have a photo ID don’t mind obtaining one when it’s provided free of charge.  This only turns into a huge “controversy” when it’s aggressively politicized.  There’s nothing “tone deaf” about treating American voters as responsible adults.

The Times keeps referring to voter ID laws as “restrictions,” a profoundly dishonest term.  There is nothing even slightly “restrictive” about ensuring that only legitimate voters are allowed to cast ballots.  And contrary to the pretenses of voter-ID opponents, this is  a serious problem, not an incredibly rare aberration that isn’t worth worrying about.  Every couple of weeks brings a new story about thousands of duplicate and invalid voter registrations; every single time a media organization actually devotes resources to a serious story about ballot integrity, they easily turn up dozens of people who have voted illegally in at least one previous election.

It’s a serious mistake on principle to make the rule of law into a football that gets shoved up and down the field because insisting upon it supposedly “offends” some group of people.  We’ve got far too much of that going on in America.  And it doesn’t sound as if Sen. Paul’s position is getting him anywhere with his target audience, which is entirely predictable:

In the interview, Mr. Paul also stressed his commitment to restoring voting rights for felons, an issue that he said black crowds repeatedly brought up during his speeches.

“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.”

In trying to explain previous comments about the Civil Rights Act, Mr. Paul recently clarified that he would have voted for the landmark law, although he has expressed concern that its provisions may infringe on the rights of private institutions.

Some Democrats were not impressed by Mr. Paul’s efforts at outreach. G. A. Hardaway, a member of the Tennessee General Assembly, published a letter on Friday that called out Mr. Paul for his past statements on the Civil Rights Act and for saying that he did not think it was unreasonable to ask voters to produce drivers licenses.

“Get real, Senator,” Mr. Hardaway said. “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.” 

People who think ballot integrity should be taken less seriously than the purchase of beer at the corner store aren’t going to warmly embrace a Republican presidential hopeful just because he tips his cap to the race-baiting rhetoric deployed against voter identification.  They don’t want to give up that political cudgel.  They don’t want to lighten up on the extremist rhetoric they use against Republicans.  Playing into that rhetoric in the hope of winning some applause for being a “kinder, gentler Republican” doesn’t pay big dividends for individual politicians, but it inflicts continuing damage against the rest of the party, and against what remains of American citizenship.  Citizenship is a combination of privileges and responsibilities.  Voting in free and fair elections is one of the responsibilities.

Say what you will about the notion of restoring the franchise to convicted felons, but it’s a reasonable discussion for society to have.  Opposition to common-sense voter identification and ballot security is ludicrous, especially given how gigantic our government has become.  Legitimate voters have little enough influence over our impenetrable bureaucracy as it stands.  We must at least insist on using the best available information technology to ensure that every ballot is valid.