Here's Where Rand Paul Can Find 'Objective Evidence' of Vote Suppression

The Kentucky senator said this week that he doesn't believe anyone is stopping African-Americans from voting -- which only shows he's not looking.
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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Dear Senator Rand Paul:

If you want to be president of the United States one day, if you want more people to take you seriously as an independent thinker within the Republican Party, if you want to lead your party back to control of the Senate, or if more modestly you want simply to tether yourself to some form of reality, you are going to have to stop making false and insulting statements like you did Wednesday when you declared: "I don't think there is objective evidence that we're precluding African-Americans from voting any longer."

I guess it all depends upon your definition of "objective evidence." On the one hand, there are the factual findings about evidence and testimony contained in numerous opinions issued recently by federal judges, both Republican and Democrat, who have identified racially discriminatory voting measures. And on the other hand, there is your statement that none of this is "objective." It's a heavy burden you've given yourself, Senator -- proving that something doesn't exist when we all can see with our own eyes that it does.

Last August, for example, three federal judges struck down Texas's photo identification law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because it would have led "to a regression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise." Those judges did find that some of the evidence presented to them was "invalid, irrelevant or unreliable" -- but that was the evidence Texas offered in support of its discriminatory law. You should read this ruling before you talk about minorities and voting rights.

While you are at it, you should also read the opinion -- issued almost exactly one year ago -- by another panel of federal judges who determined that Florida's partisan plan to shorten early voting days constituted evidence of racial discrimination. Or if that doesn't rise to your level of "objective evidence" read what U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, an appointee of President George W. Bush, wrote last fall in a voting-rights challenge in South Carolina. Section 5 of the federal law, he wrote, acted as a vital deterrent forcing recalcitrant lawmakers to enact less discriminatory voting measures.

Now, you may disagree with what all of these federal judges (Republican appointees as well as Democratic ones) concluded about the discriminatory nature of these laws, after they heard sworn testimony and read the voluminous records in these cases. But you can't say they offered "no objective evidence" for the conclusions they reached. Your conclusion, on the other hand, directly contradicts the experiences of countless citizens, in and out of the South, who have been victimized by the new generation of voter-suppression efforts.

Surely you aren't saying that all of these people are just making it up. Or maybe you are. Last week, you said: "There is no greater defender, truly, of minority rights, if you consider minorities to be the color of your skin or the color of your ideology, than myself." Many people initially took that as an attempt to portray yourself as a supporter of minority rights. Fair enough, and good for you. But in light of your statements on voting rights, that old comment now suggests the only minority rights you are wiling to defend are for those defined by "the color of their ideology," whatever that means.

But back to your task. Don't just stop with the court rulings. Read some of the briefs filed earlier this year in Shelby County v. Holder, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the "coverage formula" of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Those court documents chronicle dozens of proven instances of racial discrimination in voting. Read this brief, for example, filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Read this report by the Brennan Center for Justice on more recent examples of voter suppression. Tell me what parts of these documents do not constitute "objective evidence" to you?

You also should read the Shelby County ruling itself. If you do, you'll notice that none of the justices -- not even the five conservative ones who ignored precedent to limit the Voting Rights Act -- concluded, as you have, that there is "no objective evidence that we're precluding African-Americans from voting any longer." On the contrary, even Chief Justice John Roberts, the architect of the law's demise, wrote this on page 2 of his opinion, "voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that." So tell me, what do you know that Chief Justice Roberts doesn't know about racial discrimination in voting practices?

Read Steve Suitts's memorable piece "Voting Rights, the Supreme Court, and the Persistence of Southern History," while you are at it. Here's how it starts: "Seven years ago, as I sat doing research at the historical society of Shelby County, Alabama, a county commissioner arrived, hailing the librarian and me. 'Happy Martin Luther Coon Day!' he shouted." Read Ari Berman on North Carolina's patently discriminatory new voting laws. By claiming there is "no objective evidence" that blacks are being precluded from voting today you are calling all of these scholars and journalists fools or liars.

You're calling Rep. John Lewis that, too. The Georgia Democrat nearly died fighting for voting rights in the 1960s. And the current rebirth of racially discriminatory voter-suppression laws is breaking his heart now. You want to lead the nation one day? Instead of insulting men like Lewis by telling them the problems they experience don't exist, you should be pledging to work with him on Capitol Hill to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act in the wake of Shelby County. That's the sort of profile in courage to which you aspire, right? It's not courageous to deny the truth about voter suppression.

This is your very own "birther" moment, Senator Paul: an opportunity for you to confront and debunk a myth. You have to take sides. Either you choose the truth, acknowledge that a new generation of voter-suppression efforts discriminate against racial minorities, and pledge to do something productive to stop it. Or you choose to continue wallowing in the fantasy that there is no "objective evidence" that it is happening. One path leads, perhaps, to political power and righteousness. The other, surely, leads to a lifetime of scorn.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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