The Supreme Court Decides Total Population Counts In Drawing Electoral Districts
Today, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed that congressional districts can continue to be drawn based on the one person, one vote doctrine. The case, Evenwel v. Abbott, asked the Court to change the way electoral district lines are drawn in ways that would shift representation away from communities with large non-citizen immigrant populations towards whiter communities. At issue in the case was whether or not states should draw congressional districts based on the eligible voter population rather than the total population. Basing congressional districts on only eligible voters would mean millions of non-voters, like the 75 million kids or more than 11 million unauthorized citizens living in the U.S., would no longer be represented. All eight Supreme Court Justices rejected the challenge.
Under the 14th amendment, states allocate congressional representation by “counting the whole number of persons in each state.” That means everyone—including non-citizens, disenfranchised citizens, children, and anyone else ineligible to vote—counts when the total number seats in the House of Representatives are distributed. The one-person, one vote doctrine requires states to create electoral districts with roughly equal populations. So a congressional district in one part of a state has roughly the same number of people as a district in another part of the state, even if the actual number of voters in those districts varies.
The plaintiff’s in Evenwel hoped to change that equation so that congressional districts were carved out based on the total number of eligible voters rather than total population. Drawing congressional districts based on total number of eligible voters rather than total population would hugely impact states with large non-citizen populations like Texas, where the case originated. In effect, had the plaintiffs succeeded, Texas’s large non-citizen Latino population would lose representation while the rest of the state would gain it.
In her majority opinion, Justice Ginsburg makes it clear that the plaintiff’s argument is at odds with the Constitution, history, and practice. The 14th amendment already requires that a state’s total number of members of the House be based on total population, so it would be inconsistent for the 14th amendment to simultaneously require that congressional districts be based on eligible voters. In other words, it wouldn’t make sense for Texas to receive extra seats in Congress for the non-citizen Latino residents who were removed from the districting process.
Additionally, adopting the plaintiff’s argument would likely have sparked chaos as states scrambled to redraw district lines. Currently, all states use a similar method to carve out districts. And in her opinion, Justice Ginsburg suggests that states must have some space to determine how to divvy up representation within the state. So while the Court struck down the plaintiff’s attempt to base congressional districts on voter population, it did not explicitly prevent states from implementing such a system themselves.
BOTTOM LINE: Today the Supreme Court rejected a partisan challenge that could have upended our redistricting process and changed the balance of congressional districts. In doing so, the Court unanimously affirmed what we already know—that constitutional history, precedent, and practice mean districts can continue to be drawn based on one person one vote.
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