Rand Paul is opening a new frontier for Republicans: Voting rights. The Kentucky senator is introducing this week a bill that restores voting rights to nonviolent felons in federal elections. Paul is also pursuing drug sentencing reform in the Senate and is mulling efforts aimed at easing nonviolent criminals back into the job market. He even wants to redefine some drug offenses currently classified as felonies to misdemeanors. Together, the moves add up to a concerted effort to get minorities, young people and civil libertarians excited about Republicans — groups that much of the party admits it needs. Paul argues he’s inspired by a sense of justice, but the expected 2016 contender won’t deny that his criminal justice portfolio is also motivated by politics. “I believe in these issues. But I’m a politician, and we want more votes,” he conceded in an interview. “Even if Republicans don’t get more votes, we feel like we’ve done the right thing.”
Nearly 8 percent of the black population currently cannot vote, compared with 1.8 percent of the nonblack population, according to The Sentencing Project. And incarcerations for nonviolent offenses that lead to a loss of voting rights fall more heavily on African-Americans and Latinos than whites, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
As of 2011, more than a third of the 637,000 nonviolent prisoners in state or federal prisons were serving time for drug offenses. And although that year African-Americans made up about 13 percent of the population and Latinos about 16 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, BJS reported that 44 percent of those imprisoned for drugs were black and 20 percent were Latino.