Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, in Memphis for a Republican National Committee meeting, met with a group of black pastors. Credit Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

MEMPHIS — Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky broke Friday with fellow Republicans who have pushed for stricter voting laws as a way to crack down on fraud at the polls, saying that the focus on such measures alienates and insults African-Americans and hurts the party.

“Everybody’s gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing,” Mr. Paul said in an interview. “I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.”

Mr. Paul becomes the most prominent member of his party — and among the very few — to distance himself from the voting restrictions and the campaign for their passage in states under Republican control, including North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin, that can determine presidential elections. Civil rights groups call the laws a transparent effort to depress black turnout.

Speaking here in a mostly black and Democratic city with its own painful history of racism, Mr. Paul said that much of the debate over voting rights had been swept up in the tempest of racial politics.

The senator has had his own struggles with civil rights issues, hedging at times on his support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And, notably, he did not on Friday denounce voter ID laws as bad policy or take back previous statements in which he had said it was not unreasonable for voters to be required to show identification at the polls. He says these laws should be left to the states. (Kentucky does not have a restrictive voter identification statute.)

Instead, in his comments, he suggested that Republicans had been somewhat tone deaf on the issue.  In the last three years, the voting rights fight has extended to more than 30 states and taken on a more partisan tone. The measures that have passed or are under consideration vary. Some require that voters come to the polls with a birth certificate, passport or other proof of citizenship. Others would cut back on early voting.

The movement gained momentum last year after the Supreme Court struck down a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had required mostly Southern states to get Justice Department approval before changing its voting laws. States moved quickly, and since the decision last June, about a dozen have passed laws creating stricter regulations for voting.

Few issues ignite such passion among the base of both parties. Democrats argue that the laws are intended to keep poor voters away from the polls because they often have difficulty obtaining identification. Republicans contend cheating is rife in today’s elections.

Mr. Paul was in Memphis for the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting, but beforehand, he sat down to discuss his views on voting rights, public education and antipoverty policies with a group of black pastors.

Afterward, in a news conference, Mr. Paul admitted he still had a lot of work to do. Sometimes, he said, his audiences tell him: “I like what you’re saying. I’m still not voting for you.”

“That’s why you’ve got to keep saying it,” he said.

Mr. Paul’s remarks seem certain to stir up concern among Republicans over whether the senator — a libertarian-minded ophthalmologist who was first elected to public office three years ago — can appeal to the conservative voters who have so much influence in selecting the nominee.

He is not getting much support from Republican leaders in his efforts to change the discussion or the party’s tone. Colin L. Powell and Michael Steele, the former party chairman, have spoken against the restrictions. But no ranking Republican has done so, and there was no indication Friday that any would change their minds.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, often seen as a party rival to Mr. Paul, has said that it is unfortunate that it is “minority voters who are the victims of that fraud,” but that governments “should not be working to undermine the integrity of our elections.”

Another Republican widely seen as a contender for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, has embraced a contentious measure in his state to eliminate voting on Sunday and enact other restrictions.

Voting experts said the impact of the new laws might not become clear until the November elections. Many of the measures have yet to take effect, and a few will not start until 2016.

N.A.A.C.P. officials said they were encouraged that a prominent Republican would challenge his party. “But the proof is always in the pudding in terms of seeing exactly what policies and measures he might support as an elected official,” said Jotaka Eaddy, the group’s senior director of voting rights.

Mr. Paul is on a cross-country tour, stopping in Democratic strongholds like Chicago and Detroit where it might not seem obvious for a conservative Republican to seek out an audience.

After his meeting with the pastors in Memphis, Mr. Paul traveled a few blocks to address the Republican gathering, but he made no mention of voting rights. Instead, he hit on the message that the party needed to soften its edges and show more sympathy to populations that have felt overlooked and maligned by Republicans.

In the interview, Mr. Paul also stressed his commitment to restoring voting rights for felons, an issue that he said black crowds repeatedly brought up during his speeches.

“The bigger issue actually is whether you get to vote if you have a felony conviction,” he said. “There’s 180,000 people in Kentucky who can’t vote. And I don’t know the racial breakdown, but it’s probably more black than white because they’re convicted felons. And I’m for getting their right to vote back, which is a much bigger deal than showing your driver’s license.”

In trying to explain previous comments about the Civil Rights Act, Mr. Paul recently clarified that he would have voted for the landmark law, although he has expressed concern that its provisions may infringe on the rights of private institutions.

Some Democrats were not impressed by Mr. Paul’s efforts at outreach. G. A. Hardaway, a member of the Tennessee General Assembly, published a letter on Friday that called out Mr. Paul for his past statements on the Civil Rights Act and for saying that he did not think it was unreasonable to ask voters to produce drivers licenses.

“Get real, Senator,” Mr. Hardaway said. “To come here, to Memphis of all places, and espouse the principles and ‘goodness’ of today’s Republican Party,” he added. “Excuse me if I’m not buying it.”

By  see more at The New York Times





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