Rand Paul, the unofficial leader of the GOP's minority outreach efforts, is setting aside the party's tough-on-crime mantra to help convicted criminals regain the right to vote. While that may not go over well with members of his own party, it's an intentional step toward 2016 for Paul. Instead of trying to convince minority voters that the GOP is committed to their causes, he's decided to make himself their champion by addressing a civil rights violation that disproportionately affects blacks, especially in his home state.
Paul has mentioned the idea before. At CPAC in March, several 2016 hopefuls emphasized their stances on judicial reform. But Paul took the idea a step further this weekend. The Republican party has been focused on expanding voter ID laws to curtail (almost entirely invisible) voter fraud. Paul thinks this is a secondary concern. "Voter ID is one-one thousandths of the problem compared to felony disenfranchisement," Paul said on Friday in New Hampshire. "I think there’s 150,000 people in Kentucky who can’t vote because of a felony conviction. Probably half or more are black.” Kentucky is one of only three states in which anyone with a felony conviction is permanently disenfranchised, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Like voter ID laws, felony disenfranchisement laws tend to disproportionately affect minorities and be more strict in red states. Currently, about 20 percent of voting age black men are disenfranchised in Kentucky, Florida and Virginia, according to the Star Tribune. Last week, theTribune noted that advocate groups like Restore the Vote-Minnesota argue that voting rights reforms would "eliminate inadvertent illegal votes by released felons who don’t understand the law, help with felons’ transition to life in their communities and reverse a growing disenfranchisement of black males, who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system." Their opponents argue that ex-cons shouldn't have a say in crafting current laws, even after they've served their time.
On Sunday, Paul managed to slip in a reference to felony disenfranchisement during an appearance on ABC's This Week. Jonathan Karl noted that Eric Holder mentioned "there was a racial dimension to the intensity of the criticism that he has faced and Barack Obama has faced," and asked if that made it harder for him, as a Republican, to reach out to minorities, according to The Washington Post. Paul's response illustrated his commitment to the disenfranchisement issue, but also the reason why Republicans find it so hard to outreach to minorities. Paul said he's willing to work with liberals on issues "like getting people back the right to vote when they’ve done their time, getting people a second chance, trying not to put people in jail for 50 years for youthful mistakes." If Paul keeps this up, he'll be second only to Jeb Bush on the compassion front.