Supreme Court unanimously rules that one person really does equal one vote

The Supreme Court just unanimously rejected an attempt by conservatives to dilute the voting power of non-white communities.

The controlling ruling in Evenwel v Abbott, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by five other justices (Justices Thomas and Alito wrote separate concurring opinions), holds that states may continue to draw legislative districts based on total population. A group of voters in Texas had argued that districts should instead be drawn based on the voting-eligible population. Setting aside for the moment the fact that the Census Bureau currently doesn’t collect the data necessary to implement such a plan, the plaintiffs’ argument amounted to a dramatic revision of the principle of “one person, one vote” established in 1964.

It would also have amounted to a dramatic revision of the American electoral landscape. As I wrote when the Court agreed to hear the case:

The Supreme Court, via Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court, via Wikimedia Commons

If the Court were to invalidate the current standard, the voting power of Texas’ growing Hispanic population would take a serious hit. Urban areas like Dallas and Houston would see their “populations” officially cut in half, forcing a redrawing of district lines. As Michael Li, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice told MSNBC, the new standard would make it far more difficult to draw Hispanic-majority districts under the Voting Rights Act, producing more oddly-shaped districts that would in turn be easier to challenge in court as illegal.

Sociologist Andrew Beveridge represented the case’s electoral implications visually here:

Congressional districts by percent of total population ineligible to vote, via Andrew Beveridge / Social Explorer

Congressional districts by percent of total population ineligible to vote, via Andrew Beveridge / Social Explorer

While the Court didn’t hold that states are prohibited from using voting-eligible population to draw their districts, instead holding that they were merely not required to, Justice Ginsburg did point out that the voting-eligible population standard was clearly not what the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Constitution. As she wrote, when the Constitution was ratified, “the basis of representation in the House was to include all inhabitants—although slaves were counted as only three-fifths of a person—even though States remained free to deny many of those inhabitants the right to participate in the selection of their representatives.” When it suited them, Southern states were more than happy to include voting-ineligible residents for the purposes of legislative district apportionment. There is no constitutional basis for arguing that their inclusion is in fact illegal.

Legal arguments aside, however, it’s worth noting that voting isn’t the be-all and end-all of representation that using voting-eligible population for district apportionment would suggest. Had the Court sided with the plaintiffs in Evenwel, it would have denied representation to children, felons, the mentally disabled, immigrants and other groups who, while ineligible to vote, are very much affected by government policy.

All in all, this ruling is a (unsurprising) win for voting rights and a win for Democrats. On to the next battle in the voting wars.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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