Rand Paul is hoping to rebrand the Republican Party as a party of opportunity and second chances with a bill that would restore the vote for those convicted of minor drug offenses.
Currently, states have felony disenfranchisement laws with varying levels of severity, resulting in approximately 5.85 million Americans who cannot vote because of criminal records. Disenfranchisement laws disproportionately affect African Americans, leaving one in thirteen African Americans unable to vote because of felony convictions.
Paul believes that his bill will answer critics who claim that Republicans want to restrict voting rights. “Here’s a Republican who wants to enhance the vote,” he said. “This is a much bigger problem than anything else limiting voting right now. Nearly a million people can’t vote. And I want to help people get their right to vote back.”
He also hopes that the bill, along with drug sentencing reform, will open the door to conversations with minority communities. “There’s a racial outcome to the war on drugs. Three out of four people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses are black and brown,” he said.
Paul is onto something when he focuses on redemption rather than prevention. The “war on drugs” is a failure because its founders did not take into account the nature of drug addiction. Unfortunately there is a genetic component to addiction, which makes it difficult to prevent drug abuse. If the government cracks down on one substance, addicts will turn to another. Drug addicts and alcoholics have been around forever, and they’re not going anywhere. The answer is not preventing new addicts, but rehabilitating those who are already addicted.
The war on drugs also resulted in racial sentencing disparities. Because of the clampdown on crack cocaine and the fact that African Americans are easy to arrest and sentence, African Americans are sent to state prisons for drug offenses thirteen times more often than those of other races.
Taking on the war on drugs could be an effective way to court minority voters while staying true to libertarian and conservative principles. Rand Paul is smart to point out the logistic failures and inequities of the war on drugs, but there is a larger point to be made. When the government tries to legislate away societal problems, we can end up needing more protection from the government than the societal ill that it is trying to protect us from.
When the government becomes obsessed with protecting us from our own decisions, we end up with a country where minors are jailed for years on drug possession charges and people are mandated to buy health insurance. I applaud Rand Paul for taking the first step, but he shouldn’t be afraid to give traditionally disenfranchised voters their first dose of libertarianism.