Senator Rand Paul, likely Republican candidate for the presidency in 2016, told a group in Louisville this week that there is no "objective evidence" that blacks are being precluded from voting. Writing at Politico, the National Review's Rich Lowry went further, suggesting that Hillary Clinton's recent speech against voter ID laws was racial opportunism and that such laws are "a victimless crime," given voter fraud. Both Lowry and Paul are wrong, for different reasons.
Voter ID laws are specifically ones in which voters would need to provide specific forms of ID before voting, though the term is generally used to refer to other efforts to restrict voting access, such as North Carolina's ban on same-day registration. As Lowry notes, the rationale for these laws is the argument that voter fraud must be curtailed. And just last year, he reports, 10 people were charged with fraud in the Milwaukee area alone!
Objective data shows limited incidents of vote fraud, as the Washington Post noted last year. Since 2000, there have been 10 incidents of voter impersonation — among the millions of voters over seven federal election cycles. Further, those 10 people in Milwaukee were all charged. Meaning that the existing laws are clearly sufficient to catch them.
There's little question that laws like North Carolina's new one — which Lowry suggests is merely the state "joining the American mainstream" — disproportionately affect Democratic voters. The Atlantic Wire's Allie Jones outlined the data on the effects in the state earlier this week: Three out of every five early voters is a Democrat, and the ID law essentially makes voting more difficult for college students by excluding their IDs from the list of acceptable ones. This is the stated goal of voter ID laws: to make voting harder. And that tends to make it harder for people unable to take off work on Tuesday election days — people who are often in lower-paid jobs that lack the necessary flexibility. A study conducted last year suggested that people of color, particularly young ones, were those most likely to be affected by the laws.
But let's return to Rand Paul's comments. "The interesting thing about voting patterns now," he said, "is in this last election African-Americans voted at a higher percentage than whites in almost every one of the states that were under the special provisions of the federal government." In other words, black people in those states that were covered under the Voting Rights Act (mostly states in the South) voted more frequently than their white counterparts. Therefore, the system works, and there is no evidence that blacks are being prevented from voting.
And the trends in voting reflect Paul's argument. Here's voting percentages by citizens, broken down by race, since 1978. Blacks are voting as frequently as whites.
North Carolina's new voting law is one of the first since the Supreme Court invalidated key sections of the VRA, a change that meant the state's new law wouldn't need to be vetted by the Justice Department before going into effect. Isn't it possible, then, that one unspoken goal of the law — and similar new restrictions — might be to tamp down on that growing African-American vote? That the voter ID laws are an attempt to make it harder for constituencies that vote Democratic to make it to the polls, as one Pennsylvania lawmaker suggested last year? That the link between blocking Democrats and blocking blacks is inextricable, despite what Texas hopes to prove?
In other words, isn't it possible that these laws, untethered to demonstrations of actual fraud, might themselves be the "objective evidence" that Paul says doesn't exist?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.