It's an occupational hazard for a political writer to be undecided on a hotly contested issue. So it is with some reluctance that I confess that's exactly where I find myself on voter ID laws.
I've read smart liberals like The Nation's Ari Berman argue passionately that state ID requirements disenfranchise minority voters like a modern-day poll tax. I've also read smart conservatives like National Review's John Fund maintain just as adamantly that such laws are a crucial defense of the ballot's integrity and security.
I'm not entirely persuaded by either argument. I'm prepared to believe voter fraud isn't a big enough problem to inconvenience any significant number of rightful voters, especially through means that have a disparate impact on minorities. I could also be convinced that it is so difficult to function in the modern world without proper identification that large numbers of poor people not having ID is a bigger problem than people showing up to the polls claiming to be Eric Holder.
What I don't buy is the extreme argument from either side — that voter fraud is ubiquitous, even if some examples can be found, or that voter ID laws are the new Jim Crow.
It should nevertheless bother Republicans that so many black voters perceive these laws to be racist. That's what Rand Paul was likely getting at when he urged Republicans in a recent interview with the The New York Times not to go "completely crazy on this voter ID thing."
"I think it's wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it's offending people," Paul said. He later clarified that he was speaking about emphasis and perception more than the policy itself.
He's on to something. The real key for GOP minority outreach is trying to understand how Republican issue positions and rhetoric are perceived by the people the party wants to attract. That doesn't always mean changing those positions. But it does mean listening and adapting where possible.
Sometimes, that's easier said than done. That's why Republican minority outreach typically focuses on issues where there is already significant support from black and Latino voters, like school choice, or where Republicans are already open to moving in a new direction, like sentencing reform.
Still, Republican efforts to broaden the party's demographic appeal have largely failed. And as Paul Ryan saw during the "inner city" flap, sometimes the party's poor standing in minority communities prevents it from communicating things that might be less controversial if they were said by Democrats.
A few years ago, I defended Arizona's controversial immigration law. I thought then and think now that it was a more moderate approach to curtailing illegal immigration than the media portrayal suggested. Mitt Romney's failed "self-deportation" gambit aside, I still believe measures aimed at gradually reducing the undocumented population are preferable to either mass legalization or mass deportation.
But it should have been obvious why many Latino Americans feared the law would harm them or lead to racial profiling. Its conservative supporters should have taken their concerns more seriously.
Maybe no agreement could have ever been reached on how to deal with immigration in Arizona. Or maybe the result of such a conversation would have been a better law. Either way, it's at least possible that open dialogue could have decoupled concern about borders and immigration enforcement from a perceived hostility to Latinos.
Listening to why people view Republican policy initiatives with suspicion is a necessary prerequisite to any conversation that might possibly win converts. A party seeking black votes must take seriously the perception that it wants to reduce the number of black voters.
Consider that in 1964, a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act. Two of those votes came from future GOP presidential nominees, Gerald Ford and Bob Dole.
But the Republican presidential nominee that year was Barry Goldwater, who voted against the law. It didn't matter that Goldwater opposed segregation and voted for previous civil rights bills, or that he objected to only two sections of the 1964 law. The party was seen as anti-civil rights, and its presidential ticket's share of the black vote tumbled from 32 percent in 1960 to 6 percent in 1964 — never to exceed 15 percent again.
Republicans made a similar mistake four years before, when John F. Kennedy reached out to jailed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s family and Richard Nixon didn't. King's father, a Republican who intended to vote for Nixon, switched to the Democrats.
Maybe it will take another Goldwater Republican, who has had his own Civil Rights Act dust-ups, for our party to truly learn from this history.