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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  • Bcre8ve

    My question still is, “How are they more fully represented?” In reality, it provides extra representation to those fortunate enough to live in one of these districts, but to think that those representatives will step up and “represent” for those that cannot, ever, vote for them is not realistic. As in the FL example, how many times has those prisoners’ Rep shown up to hear, much less address, their concerns? I’m guessing never. But considering that there are more than two prisoners in that district for every person even eligible to vote, I’m, guessing that those that do have the potential to vote get extra representativey representation. The robust kind. Where they actually care if a state contractor is feeding you maggots and making you pull your own teeth as “healthcare”.

    That said, I actually think the court made the correct decision. How to deal with the packing of districts with people that can never, ever vote and pretending they have some sort of say? Not sure what the answer is there, and it may fall to state constitutions to correct it, but the assertion that they are somehow gaining.retaining actual representation, rather than just another “representative” that doesn’t give them a moment’s thought other than to find new and creative ways to milk the system using their names, does not ring true.

  • Hue-Man

    Does this decision extend to the allocation of the 435 House seats to states?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_congressional_apportionment

  • “…it would have denied representation…” <– That's the key phrase, 'representation' not being the same thing as a vote.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    I’m having trouble seeing this as a test of a bedrock principle. It sounds a little more like “This makes it easier for Democratic voters to vote,” (or, rebukes efforts to make it harder) which while it is a win for my team isn’t necessarily a win for democracy. Setting aside how this affects the drawing of Hispanic-majority or other districts in Texas or elsewhere, why doesn’t it make sense to draw voting districts according to voting population? For the sake of argument take a neighborhood where all the families have 15 kids, all minors. If you district by raw population that might be its own district where a small number of voters have a large amount of power, but at the same time they’ll lose some individual power because each household might get one or two votes for fifteen people.

    It seems to me that partisan redistricting is itself the biggest threat to “one person, one vote”, and that it’s the system itself that most needs fixing.

  • Bcre8ve

    “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.”

    How? Do they get a proxy vote somewhere? If they are ineligible to vote, how does help them? In FL, there is a district that is more than 70% prisoners. How does this help them? And how is it that this captive, non-voting population is served by their district having 70% more representation than their neighboring districts – when their elected “representative” doesn’t even have to pretend to be concerned with their needs – and quite often is served by agitating against them?

    Please, someone, tell me!

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