The Supreme Court dealt a stunning affirmation of the principle of “one person, one vote” Monday with a unanimous decision supporting drawing legislative district lines based on total population, not just eligible voters.
The decision is a landmark victory for minority groups and civil liberties organizations, which have been fighting voting rights cases they warned would hurt minority representation. A decision to exclude noncitizens and people under 18 would have had a huge impact on districts with large Latino and black populations.
The Framers recognized that use of a total-population baseline served the principle of representational equality.
Supreme Court decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The Texas case, Evenwel v. Abbott, was brought by two individuals who challenged state Senate lines they said over-represented nonvoters and diluted the value of their votes.
The Obama administration joined the state of Texas in the case opposing the use of voters instead of population in drawing districts. Greg Abbott was the state’s attorney general and is now the governor.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement: “We are pleased with the unanimous decision of the court. My office is committed to defending the Constitution and ensuring the state legislature, representing the citizens, continues to have the freedom to ensure voting rights consistent with the Constitution.”
Edward Blum, president of The Project on Fair Representation, which provided counsel to the plaintiffs, said in a statement that he was disappointed the court did not accept what he considered the original intent of the writers of the 14th Amendment, to measure districts by voters. “We are disappointed that the justices were unwilling to re-establish the original principle of one person, one vote for the citizens of Texas and elsewhere,” said Blum, who added that the issue “was not going to go away.”
The Supreme Court’s 8-0 ruling supports the total population standard that is used by virtually all state and local jurisdictions. (The court has only eight members because of the death in February of Justice Antonin Scalia.) In oral arguments last December, judges were skeptical about changing the standard.
The court decision, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, says: “Settled practice confirms what constitutional history and prior decisions strongly suggest. Adopting voter-eligible apportionment as constitutional command would upset a well-functioning approach to districting that all 50 states and countless local jurisdictions have long followed.”
“As the Framers of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment comprehended, representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible to vote. Nonvoters have an important stake in many policy debates and in receiving constituent services,” the court concluded. “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.”
“It’s a slam-dunk win for the state of Texas and the Justice Department,” said Alan Clayton, a redistricting expert in California. “It’s a massive win for people who support the use of population in redistricting and a massive loss for people who want to use eligible voters.”
Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, who is African-American and represents portions of Fort Worth in a North Texas district, said, “Today, the Supreme Court rejected the political argument that children and thousands of other hardworking, tax-paying adults don’t count and don’t deserve representation. Everyone must be counted in our democracy and as elected officials we have a responsibility to represent everyone in our districts.”
Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, who represents a minority Latino district in Houston, said, “The fight for equal access to the ballot box is not over, however, and I will continue to push for Congress to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and ensure that all Americans, regardless of their income or background, have an equal opportunity to vote.”
Minority activist organizations, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, welcomed the decision. The fund’s president and general counsel, Thomas A. Saenz, said in a statement, “In a tremendous victory for democratic representation that recognizes that all constituents count, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the plaintiffs’ fatally flawed argument that states should count only voters in drawing districts.”
In Texas, Latinos are 36 percent of the population but only 26 percent of registered voters.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., said, “This challenge would have created devastating implications for our nation’s most vulnerable communities, especially Latinos, who are already at risk of losing even more representation. All Americans deserve to be represented equally, even if they don’t vote or aren’t eligible to vote.”
ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro said in a statement, “This decision is a victory for the principle of representative democracy. There is a reason that every state has chosen to apportion its state legislative districts based on total population. Government actions affect everyone, not just eligible voters.”
Wendy Weiser, director of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, said, “Today’s ruling affirms the long-standing state practice of counting everyone in redistricting. It affirms the principle that the government represents all the people, and helps ensure that efforts to manipulate voting rules won’t impact representation.”
Texas had argued it had the right to decide to choose the population standard or the eligible voter criteria in drawing legislative districts. On that point, the court’s decision basically said it was moot and the judges did not have to “resolve” the choice based on “constitutional history, precedent and practice.”