In an 8-0 decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the U.S. Supreme Court today upheld the “one person one vote” concept applicable in the drawing of legislative districts, holding that constitutional history, precedent, and practice permit a state or locality to draw its legislative districts based on total population.
Writing for the Court in Evenwel v. Abbott, Ginsburg said:
As the Framers of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment comprehended, representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote. Nonvoters have an important stake in many policy debates—children, their parents, even their grandparents, for example, have a stake in a strong public-education system—and in receiving constituent services, such as help navigating public-benefits bureaucracies. By ensuring that each representative is subject to requests and suggestions from the same number of constituents, total population apportionment promotes equitable and effective representation.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito wrote separate opinions concurring in the judgement of the court.
Typically states have counted the total population, giving all people equal representation. Voters in rural Texas however challenged that process in Evenwel, contending that by including non-eligible voters – those who aren’t citizens, for example, or those who’ve been in prison – in a district’s total population, the state gives greater weight to the far fewer votes that would be cast in such districts. They argue that instead each vote should be equal and that population count should be based on eligible voters only.
In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an Alabama redistricting plan which allotted just one representative to heavily-populated and sparsely-populated districts alike, ruling in Reynolds v. Sims that under the “one person, one vote” concept of equal representation, legislative districts should have roughly equal populations. The high court had not, however, dictated how states should count population for purposes of drawing state legislative districts.
Many voting law experts predicted that a ruling in favor of the challengers would lead to a shift in political power from urban diverse areas to suburban and rural ones would follow.
Others added that a switch to limiting population to eligible voters played into the politics of those lawmakers set on suppression through voter ID and other measures.
In more blunt terms, Election Law Blog’s Rick Hasen had called the case “an attempted Republican power grab in Texas and other jurisdictions with large Latino populations.”
Today’s opinion is significant not only for its affirmation of the concept of “equal representation” but also for its restraint, as Hasen notes in his analysis:
Perhaps the most important aspect of Justice Ginsburg’s opinion, and especially notable because it attracted the votes of not just the liberals but also Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, is the Court’s refusal to give Texas the green light to use total voters if it wants in the next round of redistricting. The Court simply put the issue off for another day. It is hard to stress enough what a victory this is for plaintiffs. Many of us thought Burns already gave Texas this power. The fact that the Court leaves that issue open will serve as a deterrent for states like Texas to try to use total voters in the next round of redistricting, because it will guarantee major litigation on the question.