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Where the 2016 GOP contenders stand on voting rights

Rand Paul may have chided his party for its voter ID obsession. But most of the 2016 Republican contenders have terrible records on voting rights.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks with reporters in Memphis, Tenn., May 9, 2014.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks with reporters in Memphis, Tenn., May 9, 2014.

Last Friday, Rand Paul told the New York Times that Republicans shouldn’t “go too crazy” about voter ID, because “it’s offending people."

It was noteworthy that a potential leading candidate for the GOP’s presidential nomination would publicly rebuke his own side on an issue where partisan passions run so high. But the Kentucky senator is definitely an outlier: The list of possible Republican presidential candidates includes several people who have played leading roles in the assault on voting rights in recent years, from Wisconsin to Florida to Texas.  

The next president could have a major impact on voting rights issues. It’ll be his or her Attorney General who’ll decide whether to challenge restrictive voting laws passed by the states, as Eric Holder has done. He or she could help push Congress to fix the Voting Rights Act, which doesn’t look like it’ll get done under President Obama. And the president’s bully pulpit can be a valuable tool in the debate, as Obama showed in his forceful voting rights speech last month.

So as the positioning for 2016 intensifies, we’ve used their past records and public comments to rank the top potential GOP presidential candidates on the issue—starting with those who have been most committed to restricting the vote. From the standpoint of protecting access to the ballot, the picture isn't too encouraging.

Scott WalkerThe Wisconsin governor is committed to making it harder to vote. He was loud and proud in support of his state’s voter ID law, and at one point even threatened to call a special legislative session to modify if the law if a court struck it down. Walker also signed a recent measure that reduced early voting, including ending weekend voting. He even raised the idea of scrapping same-day voter registration—a convenience that has brought hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites into the process—before backing off amid budget concerns. Walker’s former campaign co-chair, Michael Grebe, runs the Bradley Foundation, a conservative think tank that, during Walker’s 2010 run for governor, put billboards in black neighborhoods warning “Voter Fraud is a Felony.”

Rick PerryFrom the start, Perry was a prime mover behind his state’s voter ID law—perhaps the nation’s strictest—which was passed in 2011. “Chalk up another victory for fraud,” he said when a federal court struck down the law as racially discriminatory. (It has since been reinstated thanks to the Supreme Court’s Shelby County ruling last year). Perry also signed off on a GOP redistricting scheme that was found by a different federal court to discriminate against the state’s racial minorities.  

Ted CruzSo committed is the Texas senator to making access to the ballot harder than last year he inserted into the immigration bill an amendment requiring that people registering to vote must show ID—something experts warn will shut out numerous recent citizens from the process. As his state's solicitor general, Cruz submitted a brief on behalf of eight states in support of voter ID law in a crucial case before the U.S. Supreme Court. "Voter fraud is a serious problem threatening the integrity of our democratic process," he declared on his website while running for the U.S. Senate. And Cruz also hailed the Supreme Court’s Shelby County ruling weakening the Voting Rights Act, saying in a statement that it freed his state from “second-guessing by unelected federal bureaucrats.”

John KasichThe Ohio governor has quietly played a crucial role in the Republican effort to pare back voting rights in the Buckeye State. Just since last year, he’s signed laws that: reduce early voting and eliminate same-day voter registration; reduce the minimum number of voting machines that counties must have on hand; make it easier to purge voters from the rolls; make it more likely that provisional ballots will be rejected; and make it harder to obtain an absentee ballot. The early voting cuts are the subject of a lawsuit in federal court, alleging that they discriminate against African-Americans.

Jeb BushAs governor of Florida, Bush helped engineer perhaps the most consequential attack on voting rights in U.S. history. It was his administration that conducted flawed purges of voter rolls just before the 2000 election, then—led by Bush’s hand-picked secretary of state, Katherine Harris—ordered a halt to the recount and certified the results in favor of Bush’s brother, George. In the aftermath of that fiasco, Jeb Bush did support reform—including electronic voting machines—proposed by a commission that aimed to fix the state’s dysfunctional election system. 

"Let the air out of their tires on election day. Tell them the election has been moved to a different date."'

Marco RubioThe Florida senator is a voter ID supporter. People have to show ID to get on a plane, among other activities, he argued during a 2012 campaign stop. “What’s the big deal? What is the big deal?" Rubio also supported an effort to eliminate Sunday voting in his state.

Bobby JindalThe Louisiana governor was one of numerous southern Republicans to celebrate the Supreme Court’s Shelby County ruling, which freed the state from federal supervision. "The court recognized that states can fairly design our own (district) maps and run our own elections without the federal government," he said in a statement. But many would argue with Jindal on that point. He’s currently being sued by the NAACP for blocking efforts to fix the voting system used by a Louisiana parish, which voting rights advocates and local African-American leaders say discriminates against the parish’s black voters. 

Chris ChristieAs a blue-state governor, Christie hasn’t been involved in too many hot-button conflicts on voting issues. But he’s certainly no voting rights champion. Last year, Christie angered Democrats by vetoing a bill to establish early voting in New Jersey, citing the costs. That left the Garden State as one of only 18 at the time that didn’t let voters cast ballots in person before Election Day. And he set off a firestorm in 2012 when, in making the case that voters should decide the issue of gay marriage, he suggested that black voting rights in the Jim Crow south should have been decided by referendum.

Paul RyanEven as voting rights issues have consumed Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, the 2012 vice presidential nominee has studiously avoided taking a stance. Though he is said to take advantage of early voting himself, he didn’t say a word about the state’s recent cuts. Nor has he publicly weighed in on the state's voter ID law that was recently struck down by a federal judge. But if you can judge a man by the company he keeps, Ryan’s record is troubling: He played a key role in getting Wisconsite Reince Priebus installed as RNC chair, a platform Priebus has used to falsely spread fear over voter fraud. And like Walker, he has close ties to Grebe and the Bradley Foundation.

Rick SantorumThe former Pennsylvania senator doesn’t have much of a record on the issue, but what he’s said has been surprisingly supportive of voting rights. He supported a Senate measure aimed at restoring voting rights to ex-felons, then doubled down on the issue after a pro-Mitt-Romney group ran ads attacked him for it during the 2012 nomination fight. "I would ask Governor Romney, do you believe people who are felons, who have served their time, who have exhausted their parole and probation, should they be allowed to vote?" Santorum asked during a debate, adding: “This is a huge deal in the African-American community.”

Rand PaulPaul followed up his New York Times interview with a statement that tried to walk it back a bit, saying he thinks the issue should be left up to the states. Still, this wasn't the first time the Kentucky senator has broken with most of his party on voting rights. Earlier this year, he testified in favor of a bill in the Kentucky legislature that aimed to restore voting rights to ex-felons. And he’s working with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on the issue at the federal level. Paul noted to the Times that there are 180,000 people in his state who are disenfranchised because of felony convictions. “I’m for getting their right to vote back, which is a much bigger deal than showing your driver’s license.”