WASHINGTON -- Not since the death of poll taxes and literacy tests in the 1960s has access to the ballot box been so under siege. And as the march toward Election Day 2018 begins, the forces that helped abolish those voting obstacles appear to be moving in the opposite direction.
Fueled by conservative Supreme Court rulings, GOP politics and President Donald Trump's unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, attacks on ballot access now threaten to make voting more of a privilege in the United States than a constitutional right, say voting rights advocates.
"There appears to be an almost coordinated campaign unfolding across the country to institute voting suppression measures at the local and state level," said Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "Whether it's hostility, recalcitrance or recklessness, sadly, we're seeing many efforts to turn back the clock on the voting rights of ordinary Americans."
Those concerns were heightened when Kris Kobach, vice chairman of Trump's election fraud commission, revealed in a deposition that he wants to let states require proof of citizenship to register to vote. A spokesman for Rep. Steve King suggested the Republican from Iowa may introduce legislation to do so.
Efforts to make it harder to vote can be traced to three recent events, including the 2008 Supreme Court decision in Crawford v. Marion County that upheld Indiana's voter ID law and GOP election victories in 2010 that led to highly partisan redistricting and a wave of restrictive voting measures.
Most significant was the high court's 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing nine mostly Southern states with a history of electoral discrimination to make voting-law changes without Justice Department approval.
With the Supreme Court set to decide two new cases that could potentially expand aggressive voter purges and partisan redistricting, it's unclear where access-restriction efforts will ultimately lead, said Richard Sobel, director of the Cyber Privacy Project, which studies voter ID laws.
To block a possible voter ID bill and other legislation that would restrict ballot-box access, Democrats need to boost their numbers in Congress. And it won't be easy in 2018; many red state House districts are gerrymandered to Republicans' advantage, and Senate Democrats will be defending more seats than GOP incumbents in 2018.
"The cards are, in many ways, stacked against the Democrats," Sobel said. "It really depends on whether the Trump administration alienates enough of the Democratic base to turn out in high enough numbers to overcome all those biases."
Conservatives say they have valid concerns about the integrity of voter registration lists and voter fraud, particularly in absentee ballots.