Sen. Rand Paul Flips on His Voting Rights Flop

Political observers want to know: Is he for or against tough new voter ID laws?

Posted: 05/14/2014 01:09 PM EDT

Sen. Rand Paul is almost sure to throw his hat into the Republican presidential ring in 2016. What's less clear is where the Kentucky Republican stands on key issues like voter ID laws and other civil rights issues.

In an interview late last week with The New York Times, Rand strayed from the party line, suggesting that the GOP is taking its effort to implement stricter voting laws too far.

"Everybody's gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing," he said. "I think it's wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it's offending people."

Wade Henderson, who heads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, applauded Paul's statement and expressed hope that other Republicans would evolve in their views.

"Senator Paul is taking to heart what many of his colleagues appear to be paying lip-service to — the fact that African-Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans make up a rapidly growing slice of the electorate," Henderson said. "We hope his comments mean that he recognizes that photo ID laws are a solution in search of a problem and that efforts to restrict early and weekend voting appear to be aimed at disenfranchising African-Americans, Latinos and others who rely on ready access to the polls in order to cast ballots."

But, earlier this week, Paul sought to clarify the comment, which he said had been "overblown." In an interview with conservative radio host Sean Hannity on Tuesday, he said there's "nothing wrong" with voter ID laws, but urged the GOP to not overemphasize it.

"I’m trying to go out and say to African-Americans, ‘I want your vote and the Republican Party wants your vote.’ If they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that showing their ID is an attempt to get them not to vote because they perceive it in the lineage of a time when it truly did happen through poll taxes and questioning to try and prevent people, if they perceive it that way, we have to be aware that the perception is out there and be careful about not so overdoing something that we further alienate a block of people we need to attract," Paul said.

By the time he appeared later that night on Fox News' On the Record with Greta Van Sustern, Paul was taking an even stronger stand in favor of voter ID laws.

“I am very aware of voter fraud, and I think it’s not that unreasonable to show your driver’s license, but I’m also aware that some people find it — that they think it’s nefarious that Republicans are doing this to suppress the African-American vote," Paul said, adding that, “It’s not an unreasonable thing to ask to show your identification. We shouldn’t be tone deaf about this. And that’s what I’m saying, is don’t be tone deaf, but I’m also not saying, it’s not an unreasonable idea.”

This is not the first time the senator has offered conflicting views on the hot-button issue.

A year ago, he said that there was no longer a need for a Voting Rights Act, and that the fact that the nation has an African-American president is a sign that Blacks aren't having any trouble casting ballots at the polls. Earlier this year, the Kentucky senator introduced legislation to restore voting rights to ex-convicts who committed nonviolent crimes. 

There's no question that Paul, more than other potential 2016 presidential contenders from his party, has made an effort to connect with minority voters. But this week's 180, which suggests that he believes it's okay for the GOP to offend them with restrictive laws as long as they don't talk about it so much, may make those efforts seem more like the lip-service Henderson and other civil rights leaders have denounced, or in his words, alienate instead of appeal.

“Rand Paul likes to say that he’s a different, new type of Republican who can appeal to a broader electorate, but he has demonstrated time-and-again that when it comes to the issues, he’s the same type of far-right Republican that voters have continually rejected,” said Kiara Pesante, a Democratic National Committee spokesperson.

Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.

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