Courts & Crime

Supreme Court to consider Texas case: ‘One person, one vote’

Supreme Court
Supreme Court McClatchy

In a Texas case challenging the traditional view of “one person, one vote,” the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday on the way states and localities draw district lines.

In Evenwel v. Abbott, the plaintiffs want Texas to count only voters or citizens eligible to vote in determining state Senate lines instead of the longtime standard of counting the entire population. A decision to exclude noncitizens and people under 18 would have a dramatic impact on districts with large Latino populations and would affect every level of state and local government.

To advocates of counting only voters when drawing district lines, the population method dilutes the value of citizens’ votes.

Sue Evenwel lives in Titus County in northeast Texas, and lawyers for co-plaintiff Edward Pfenninger of Montgomery County and her maintain that their Senate districts have far more registered voters than other urban-dominated areas do.

“So all the districts have about the same number of residents, but they have different numbers of citizens and different numbers of eligible voters,” legal expert Andrew Grossman said in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

He said the disparity between voters in a district that includes Brownsville on the border – where there are far fewer eligible voters – and the plaintiffs’ districts means that “a Senate vote in Brownsville is worth about one-and-a-half times the votes cast by Ms. Evenwel and Mr. Pfenninger.”

That approach is being rejected by the state of Texas, the Department of Justice and a myriad of Latino and liberal groups.

Current data on citizenship or on registered voters is simply too inaccurate or contested to be used in redistricting.

Nathaniel Persily, James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford University Law School

The state – Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, is the defendant in the case from the time he was attorney general – is supporting the population standard as something that should be its decision. Texas maintains that it should be able to choose the option of using voter criteria or population based on earlier court rulings, even if it’s opted for population as the basis.

The Department of Justice, in a rare siding with Texas on redistricting, will be part of the oral arguments on the side of the Lone Star State. The difference is that Justice is advocating for the use of population as the standard.

The prospect of lines drawn that would discount large Latino populations has upended Democratic lawmakers.

“This legal challenge would do great harm to the state of Texas and potentially to other states that have very young populations and a significant number of noncitizen residents,” U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, told McClatchy.

“For Tarrant County in particular, this could mean that over 100,000 noncitizens would no longer be counted when assigning representation, according to a 2015 Migration Policy Institute report, and 27 percent of the county would be discounted due to be their age, according to the 2014 U.S. Census.”

For North Texas in the Texas House of Representatives, said Joe Garza, voting rights counsel of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, districts based on voters would put two of three Hispanic-represented districts at risk, including that of Texas Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth.

“We would lose seats in Texas – we would lose two districts in the Senate,” said Garza, who pointed out that Latinos are 36 percent of the Texas population but only 26 percent of registered voters. “It is an advantage for the white population.”

Congressional districts are not expected to be at issue since the Constitution says they should be apportioned by population. However, Garza thinks that advocates on the other side may say the redistricting criteria should be done by the number of voters.

And he and other Democrats point to the person instrumental in bringing the case, Ed Blum, a conservative activist who was also a central figure in Fisher v. Texas, a case the Supreme Court will hear Wednesday of a white student challenging affirmative action practices at the University of Texas.

Alan Clayton, a redistricting expert in California who’s spent decades working on maps for Latino groups, said a decision in favor of letting states choose a voter basis would be felt primarily in red states such as Florida and Arizona but that the down-ballot effect would be momentous.

“This is the Civil War of redistricting,” said Clayton.

Maria Recio: 202-383-6103, @maria_e_recio