U.S. High Court Rejects Calls to Transform Voting-Map Rules

Updated on
  • Supreme Court allows equal-population standard for districts
  • Ruling based on `one person, one vote' constitutional standard

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state and local governments can continue their longstanding method of drawing equal-sized election districts, rejecting calls for what might have been a transformational change reducing Hispanic voting clout.

Unanimously upholding Texas voting lines Monday, the justices rejected conservative groups’ arguments that map-drawers should stop using total population and start using eligible voters as the measure for the Constitution’s "one person, one vote" principle. That approach might have reduced representation for areas with large numbers of children and non-citizens and shifted some seats to more heavily Republican areas.

Writing for six justices, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the total-population approach protects the interests of nonvoters, including children who attend public schools and their parents.

QuickTake Voting Rights

“As the framers of the Constitution and the 14th Amendment comprehended, representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote,” she wrote. “Total-population apportionment promotes equitable and effective representation.”

Ginsburg stopped short of explicitly requiring map-drawers to use total population, saying only that the Constitution permitted them to do so. She said the court wasn’t deciding whether states could decide instead to use eligible voters as the measure for drawing districts.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito agreed with the outcome only, writing separately to lay out different reasoning.

Representative Democracy

The ruling touched on a fundamental question about representative democracy, asking whether lawmakers serve on behalf of everyone in their district or only those eligible to cast ballots. The issue has taken on greater importance as the share of non-citizens in the U.S. has grown.

The Texas case directly involved only state redistricting, though it could have influenced congressional maps as well. The 14th Amendment requires the 435 U.S. House seats to be apportioned among the states on the basis of total population, but it doesn’t specify what rules apply to line-drawing within the states.

The case stemmed from the Supreme Court’s landmark 1964 Reynolds v. Sims ruling, which established the “one person, one vote” standard and said the Constitution’s equal protection clause requires states to make their voting districts roughly the same size. The ruling voided maps across the country that had disproportionately allocated legislative seats to heavily white rural areas.

Although the high court had never previously said what measure map-drawers should use, the vast majority of jurisdictions -- including all 50 states -- had largely relied on the total population figures from the decennial census.

Thomas Perspective

“Adopting voter-eligible apportionment as constitutional command would upset a well-functioning approach to districting that all 50 states and countless local jurisdictions have followed for decades, even centuries,” Ginsburg wrote.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined her opinion.

In his separate opinion, Thomas said the court “has never provided a sound basis” for the one-person, one-vote principle.

“The Constitution does not prescribe any one basis for apportionment within states,” he wrote.

In his opinion, Alito questioned the suggestion that the Constitution requires the total-population method. At the same time, he pointed to practical reasons for sticking with total population, saying census figures “are more reliable and less subject to manipulation and dispute than statistics concerning eligible voters.”

Republican Chairwoman

In the Texas case, a Republican county chairwoman and another voter were trying to use the one person, one vote principle to force changes in the state Senate map, claiming they are underrepresented. They argued that some districts have almost 50 percent more eligible voters than others.

“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 the activist who organized the challenge, Edward Blum of the Project on Fair Representation.

A lower court had backed the use of total population as the measure.

Civil-rights groups said a shift away from total population would have been a blow to Hispanic communities, which tend to have more children and more non-citizens than other areas.

Children, Non-Citizens

“The court’s decision takes special care to note the representative concerns of people who cannot yet vote, whether they are children or non-citizens who haven’t yet naturalized or others,” said Nina Perales, vice president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in a conference call with reporters.

“This is a victory for our democracy and every Texas family,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “For decades, the democratic principle of ‘one person, one vote’ has ensured everyone in America, regardless of who they are or where they live, is entitled to equal representation.”

Texas officials defended their map, though they said the Constitution lets state and local governments use different measures and doesn’t require total population as the standard.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he was pleased by the ruling, even as he suggested in a statement that lawmakers don’t serve non-citizens.

Representing Citizens

“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,” Paxton said.

The Obama administration said the court should uphold the Texas map and its use of total population, without suggesting that officials might have other options.

“The ruling certainly is consistent with the arguments the government has made about the most fair and effective way” to draw district lines, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

The case is Evenwel v. Abbott, 14-940.

(Updates with additional excerpts from opinions, reaction starting in fourth paragraph.)

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