Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., says he believes there is "no objective evidence" that African-Americans' votes are being disenfranchised by new voter laws.
Paul made the comments Wednesday during a luncheon hosted by the Louisville Forum, NPR affiliate WFPL reported. The remarks come amid controversy over numerous voter ID laws across the country and laws placing new restrictions on early voting and registration, and two weeks before the 50th anniversary of the famed "March on Washington" and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech on civil rights.
"The interesting thing about voting patterns now 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," Paul said, according to NPR. "So really, I don't think there is objective evidence that we're precluding African-Americans from voting any longer."
Paul, who has publicly confirmed he is considering a presidential run in 2016, finds himself at odds with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also spoke on voting rights this week.
"Anyone that says that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in American elections must not be paying attention," Clinton said at the American Bar Association conference on Tuesday. Clinton is widely expected to make a second run for the White House in 2016, lining up a potential showdown between the two politicians.
After the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the 1964 voting rights act in June, Republican-controlled states across the country began making changes to their voting procedures. Before the 5-to-4 decision, the affected states, which have a history of racial discrimination, had to get Justice Department approval before changing voting laws.
In Texas, a voter ID law immediately cleared the state Legislature. In North Carolina, new rules on early voting, voter registration and voter ID took affect within days of the decision, and similar proposals are being considered or are in the process of becoming law across the south.
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Critics say these laws disproportionately affect communities of color, and voting districts are being racially gerrymandered to marginalize the minority vote.
"If you look at the demographics that won the election for Barack Obama it just so happens to be the same demographics that are heavily impacted and disenfranchised by these voting laws," said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP's Washington Bureau Director and Senior Vice President for Advocacy.
"Even in a heavily divisive Supreme Court, both sides don't deny that racial discrimination still occurs in the voting process in America. For Mr. Paul to say that, it does raise some important questions about his perspective on these issues."
This is not the first time Paul has made controversial comments regarding voting rights. In 2010 the senator found himself at the center of intense scrutiny surrounding comments he made that left many wondering where exactly he stood on the voting rights bill.
Paul may have ruffled some feathers, but not everyone thinks he has damaged his future presidential prospects.
"It may not be the astute thing to say politically. Although running as a Republican he is not going to get any black votes. Since 1964 Republicans have struggled to get even 10 percent of the black vote," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "An overwhelming share of Americans think voter ID is a reasonable requirement. Most folks already have a driver's license or a military ID. Most states that have adopted these usually have a provision that if you don’t have a driver’s license, you can get a state ID for free."
Bullock says that both the Republicans and Democrats are making "hay" out of voter laws, and that they are largely symbolic.
"There's not a lot of evidence that there's voter fraud and there's not a lot of evidence that voters will be disenfranchised. But for both sides it's a good rallying cause."
Shelton disagrees. He says such laws affect the poor by adding an expense to voting, as well as women who may have kept their maiden names for career reasons but have a hyphenated last name, the elderly who don't drive and minorities.
"When you look at voter ID," he said, "the question becomes, 'What are you trying to fix?'"
Multiple requests for comment from Sen. Paul were not returned by deadline.