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Supreme Court Hears "One Person, One Vote" Challenge

Supreme Court Hears "One Person, One Vote" Challenge

Early in December, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could potentially upend how states determine equal representation under the law.

The case, Evenwel v. Abott, is focused on the redistricting process in Texas. The petitioners argue that the Texas government violated the principle of “one person, one vote” implicit in the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when it drew district lines for the state legislature based on total population. This redistricting process, according to the plaintiffs, resulted in eligible voter populations differing by as much as 50% between the districts and, as such, gave voters in some districts much greater power in choosing their state legislators than in others. To remedy this problem, they are calling on the Court to issue a ruling that requires eligible voting population to be the metric used in drawing legislative districts.

The respondents, the Texas state government and the Obama administration, argue that the redistricting process does not violate “one person, one vote,” although there is considerable difference in their desired outcomes for the case. While Texas hopes that the Supreme Court will grant states the authority to decide between total population and eligible voter population, the Obama administration would like to see the Supreme Court uphold the use of total population as the most effective method to achieve equal representation.

During oral argument, the justices appeared divided in their willingness to consider eligible voter population as the criterion for redistricting. At one moment, Justice Samuel Alito pressed U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Gershengorn on whether total population would be a fair metric in an extreme case in which 10% of the population in one district, and 90% of the population in a neighboring district, are eligible to vote. On the other hand, Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that the Constitution as a whole might imply a commitment to granting all people proportional representation, even if they are ineligible to vote.

For much of the argument, however, the justices’ questions focused on the practical implications of switching from total population to eligible voter population. They raised concerns about how eligible voters could be measured and whether states could find a way to redistrict so that both metrics were reasonably equal across districts.

The rather wonky nature of the oral arguments aside, the Court’s decision in Evenwel v. Abott could have serious implications for districting and what equal representation means.

If the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of the plaintiffs and require states to adopt eligible voter population as the standard metric, all non-voters would be excluded from the count for redistricting and apportionment. Millions of children, immigrants, prisoners, ex-felons and others would no longer be able to claim that they are represented in the democratic system that governs them.

Recognizing the impact the Court’s ruling could have on children, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis joined the Children’s Defense Fund and the Fair Elections Legal Network’s amici curiae brief in support of the respondents. The brief argues that “Children are not able to vote, but they have a vital stake in the affairs of our Nation, just as the Nation has a vital stake in its children.” Total population is the only reasonable and accurate method to ensure that children are granted the representation to which they are entitled.

A decision in Evenwel v. Abbott is expected by June 2016.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia/UpstateNYer

Adam Waters is a 2015-2016 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He grew up in Coral Springs, FL, and was a member of Temple Beth Orr. Adam graduated from Brown University.

Adam Waters

Published: 12/29/2015