'One person, one vote' case could upend politics
Richard Wolf, USA TODAY 2:11 p.m. EST December 7, 2015
WASHINGTON — It's a simple concept that has lasted a half
So the Supreme Court must step in Tuesday and consider this question: When it comes to drawing election districts, who counts as a person?
On one side are civil rights groups fighting to keep the rule that emerged from a series of high court cases in the 1960s: Everyone can be counted.
On the other side are conservative groups who want tens of millions of children, non-citizens, prisoners, ex-felons and people with intellectual disabilities excluded from the count because they cannot vote.
If those challengers to Texas' state Senate districts win,
many state and municipal governments from coast to coast would
be sent back to the drawing boards.
“Every legislative map in the country would become
presumptively unconstitutional,” says Michael Li, a lawyer at
The case is the brainchild of
Blum recruited white plaintiffs Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger because they live in state Senate districts with a heavy concentration of legal voters — and therefore their votes carry less weight than those in districts with large numbers of non-voters.
"In Sue Evenwel's mostly rural district, about 584,000 citizens are eligible to vote," Blum noted when bringing the case. "In a neighboring urban district, only 372,000 citizens are eligible. As a result, voters in the urban district have more sway than in the rural district; their individual electoral preferences carry more weight."
But if the justices order Texas to redraw the lines using eligible voters, some urban districts in south Texas would swell to more than 1 million people, while others in rural areas would shrink to barely 700,000.
Outside Texas, states with large numbers of undocumented immigrants would see the biggest change, such as California, New York, New Jersey, Arizona and Nevada. Cities such as Chicago and Miami also would be affected. In many other states, the rules could change but require no immediate moving of district lines because the results from using total or voter populations are not significant.
Civil rights groups contend the change from total to voter
population would discriminate against minorities, who often face
obstacles to voting, have more children, or lack citizenship. In
addition, they say, it’s simply hard to do: While the
Texas wants flexibility to choose its method of drawing
districts, but the
“Adopting Texas’s hypothetical approach risks rendering residents of this country who are ineligible, unwilling, or unable to vote as invisible or irrelevant to our system of representative democracy,” the solicitor general’s office argues in its brief.
Blum and his allies contend the switch would not be as dramatic as claimed – particularly if the justices require states and municipalities to take both sets of data into consideration. The court could send the case back to Texas to see if such a compromise is possible, delaying any nationwide impact.
If the court gives states the option of switching to voter
population, civil rights leaders such as Sherrilyn Ifill of the
“I’m not exactly sure what your citizenship rights are," Ifill says, "if you don’t count and you can’t vote."
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