Monday, April 4, 2016

Court Says States Can Use Total Population to Draw Legislative Districts

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled today in Evenwel v. Abbott that states can use total population--and need not use voter-eligible population--to comply with the one-person-one-vote principle in drawing legislative districts.

The ruling is a setback for a group of conservative Texas voters that argued that states must use voter-eligible population in drawing legislative districts. Using voter-eligible population (as compared to total population) would benefit rural, and conservative, areas in a state like Texas, because urban areas contain a higher proportion of non-voter-eligible persons (who would count in measuring total population, but not voter-eligible population).

The case arose when a group of Texas voters argued that their votes were diluted as compared to the votes of eligible voters in other state senate districts, thus violating the one-person-one-vote principle. The state drew its state senate map based on total population, but the voters claimed that this resulted in inequalities. In particular, the voters claimed that their senate district contained a far greater eligible-voter population than other districts of equal total population. (The state senate map had a deviation between districts of 8.04 percent when measured by total population--the population that the state used in drawing the maps. This deviation is within the 10 percent deviation range that is presumptively permissible under the one-person-one-vote principle. But when measured by voter-eligible population, the map had a deviation of 40 percent--well outside that presumptively permissible point.) The voters argued that the state must use voter-eligible population in drawing districts.

The unanimous Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the Court, said that constitutional history, precedent, and practice show that a state may use total population in drawing legislative districts. In short: we've always done it this way, and we've said it's OK, so it's OK.

The Court declined to say whether a state may use voter-eligible population.

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