Here’s what will happen if the Supreme Court redefines “one person, one vote”

Next week, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Evenwel v Abbott, in which a group of Texans is asking the Court to reconsider how congressional districts are apportioned.

The plaintiffs in the case contend that since congressional districts are drawn based on how many people (as opposed to eligible or registered voters) live in a given geographic area, non-citizens inflate the voting power of citizens in congressional districts with large numbers of non-citizens. And since the non-citizen population is unevenly distributed, this means that one vote carries more relative weight in some districts as opposed to others.

The Supreme Court, via Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a number of problems with changing this arrangement such that districts are drawn based on the number of eligible voters, as opposed to total population. For starters, the Census doesn’t collect the necessary data. But even if they did, changing the system to exclude non-voters would effectively deny representation to those non-voters. And non-voters — be they children, the mentally disabled, felons or non-citizens — still have a vested interest in the actions the government takes, even if they can’t vote on them.

To get a sense of which districts would be most and least affected by adopting the eligible voter standard, sociologist Andrew Beveridge has put together an interactive map plotting the percentage of people in each congressional district that are not eligible to vote. As you can see, the districts most-heavily affected are predominantly (though far from exclusively) in the Southwest, particularly with large Latino populations.

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As Beveridge wrote regarding his methodology:

To create a real world comparison, this analysis used the same data that would have been available for redistricting in 2011 (the 2010 Census and 2006-10 American Community Survey, from which the Census Bureau tabulates CVAP for various ethnic and racial communities down to the block group level). If the court should rule for the plaintiffs, the Census Bureau would be forced to adjust their methods to accommodate the ruling, which could include adding a question about citizenship to the decennial censuses. (This report does not take into account any other problems with such a change, but several of the briefs filed in Evenwel do discuss such issues, including whether adding such a question would jeopardize the response rate and accuracy of the census.)

This analysis reveals that the effects of ruling for the plaintiffs in Evenwel would be extensive. Not only would most statewide districting plans in the United States need to be redrawn, but more than half of all districts would be substantially changed based upon the change from the population to the potential voter criterion. The newly drawn districts would shift power to those districts with lower proportions of non-citizens and children under 18. The demographic shift in voting power would also substantially favor increasing the number of Republican-dominated districts.

His analysis confirms one of the greatest fears voting rights advocates have concerning the Evenwel case: that it will make it difficult to draw majority-minority districts in conjunction with the Voting Rights Act, and would shift the Congressional map even more in favor of Republicans than it already is.

While there is precedent for using the eligible voter standard when applying the “one person, one vote” principle, the uneven effects it would have if applied nationally suggest that it won’t (or at least shouldn’t) apply in this case. As Garret Epps wrote in the Atlantic in May:

In a 1966 case called Burns v. Richardson, the Court approved a temporary Hawaii districting plan based on the number of eligible voters; the state argued it needed to use that basis, rather than population, because of the large number of military personnel moving in and out of the state. Justice William Brennan’s majority opinion approved Hawaii’s temporary plan “only because” it “produced a distribution of legislators not substantially different from that which would have resulted from the use of a permissible population basis.”

Beveridge’s analysis shows that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs in Evenwel, it will become virtually impossible for Democrats to win the House, regardless of how wide their margin of victory is in the national popular vote. This suggests that, as with previous conservative arguments concerning ballot access, the case has less to do with being right and more do to with winning.

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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12 Responses to “Here’s what will happen if the Supreme Court redefines “one person, one vote””

  1. FLL says:

    In my comment above, I explained why I don’t think the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs. When you include the phrase “against my best hopes,” it reflects well on you. In contrast, when commenters seem to be rooting for disaster, they sound like apocalyptic-minded Christians who don’t get invited to many parties. ;)

  2. FLL says:

    The plaintiffs are on very shaky ground, and I don’t think they can win here. The only statistics we have at this point are population statistics. If the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, district courts around the country would have to spend years scrambling to come up with statistics for “eligible voters,” statistics which just don’t exist at this point. It would be a fiasco. I think the Supreme Court will wisely ignore the plaintiff’s argument.

  3. taxicolor says:

    I remember him well. I am sad to hear this news.

  4. nicho says:

    I think we’re already there. We’re just waiting for someone to pull the chain.

    Of course, on its current trajectory, Homo Sapiens (sic) is headed for, if not extinction, irrelevance. Bring on the technological singularity. Give machines a chance.

  5. Moderator3 says:

    He will be missed. I’m certain this is a difficult time for his family. Thank you for presenting that information. One thing that has often saddened me was if a member of our community passed, we would never know.

  6. Opinionated Cat Lover says:


  7. Doug105 says:

    To sum up this article: Yes, which party picks judges for SCOTUS does matter. VOTE DEM!!

  8. Houndentenor says:

    “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according
    to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in
    each State, excluding Indians not taxed….”

    Our racist past comes back to haunt us. That “Indians not taxed” line could be used to justify not counting anyone who is not a citizen. But then non-citizens still pay taxes of various kinds.

  9. 2karmanot says:

    Oh no….Namaste Michael My name is Michael and I am a college professor, a Buddhist monk, a writer, and an artist. Too eerie for words.

  10. Moderator4 says:

    Completely off the current topic (apologies to Jon Green), but some of you who have been around awhile may remember regular ABlog commenter Michael Moriarty. I received word that he has died.
    Michael was a college professor, a Buddhist monk, a writer, and an artist.
    He will be missed.

  11. UncleBucky says:

    So after all that civics, history and social studies education, not to mention ethics, religion and philosophy education, the USA still goes into the toilet against my best hopes.


  12. MichaelS says:

    Would this also affect the makeup of the House, the numbers of representatives? If so, it would also the Electoral College, since Electors are distributed in proportion to the number of Representatives + Senators.

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