Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Should voting-district lines be drawn based on the number of people living there or the number of voters? The answer will influence how urban communities are truly represented.
While Hillary Clinton is hoping that improving voter registration and early voting will boost the turnout of likely Democratic voters like Latinos, African Americans, and urban Millennials, those hopes could be dashed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court recently elected to hear Evenwel v. Abbott, a case that will consider the question of “whether the cities should enjoy the same per capita representation as their suburban and rural, whiter, older counterparts,” as University of Texas at Austin law professor Joseph Fishkin frames it.
The issue here is redistricting for jurisdictions within states (as opposed to congressional district lines), and whether those lines should be drawn based on number of people per district or number of eligible voters. If drawn based on total number of people, as is currently the case, that means elected officials represent everyone in that district—children, immigrants, even those who don’t vote. It’s been this way since 1964, when the Reynolds v. Sims SCOTUS decision determined it such to correct formulas that previously afforded more district votes to sparse, rural districts over denser, urban ones.
Two voters from rural senate districts in Texas seem to want to reverse this formula, though. As explained in by court reporter Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog:
The voters, Sue Evenwel, who lives in Titus County in Senate District 1, and Edward Pfenninger, who lives in Montgomery County in District 4, said their votes were diluted because of the disparity between the two measures as applied to those districts, where more of the people vote proportionally. Both districts are rural. Other, more urban districts have proportionally fewer registered voters, so the redistricting plan based on actual population is said to give those who do vote more weight — that is, fewer of them can control the outcome.
Evenwel and Pfenninger are arguing that their districts don’t have equal weight with those of urban districts, in violation of the “one-person, one-vote,” equality principle established in Reynolds v. Sims. Put aside that Latinos in Texas have already experienced ballot inequality, thanks to recent redistricting plans that federal courts once found intentional racial discrimination in, and a voter ID law currently pending before SCOTUS that could further compound problems for them at the polls.
More specific to the Evenwel case, changing the district-lines formula so that it reflects eligible voters rather than total population could have an even harsher impact on Latino voters. The Pew Research Center finds that the districts with the smallest shares of eligible voters tend to have large Latino populations. Using U.S. House district-population data from the 2013 American Community Survey, Pew created this map to show an approximate illustration of the potential disparity:
Writes Drew DeSilver at Pew:
Of the 25 districts with the highest Hispanic population shares, 19 also are among the 25 districts with the lowest eligible-voter share. This is because so many Hispanics aren’t eligible to vote, either because they’re not U.S. citizens or because they’re younger than 18. By our calculations, only about 45% of the nation’s nearly 54 million Hispanics are eligible to vote.
There would be partisan implications as well. Of the 20 districts with the fewest eligible voters in them, Democrats have representatives in 19 of them, writes DeSilver.
The Evenwel case is made possible by Ed Blum, the attorney responsible for bringing the Shelby v. Holder case before SCOTUS, which gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, and the Fisher v. University of Texas case, which almost left racial affirmative action considerations unwound. In each of these cases, the arguments have been that white people suffer from unequal policies that disadvantage them, whether in voting or applying for college.
Should Evenwel prevail, writes Fishkin at the Balkinization blog:
It would be a power shift almost perfectly calibrated to benefit the Republican party. The losers would be urban areas with lots of children and lots of racially diverse immigrants. The winners would be older, whiter, more suburban and rural areas. … [I]t would require every map in every state to be redrawn, with the same general pattern of winners and losers.