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United States Supreme Court upholds One-Person, One-Vote in Evenwel v. Abbott

By Rob Tyson

On April 4, the United States Supreme Court held that Texas’s method of drawing legislative districts by using the total population of the state does not violate the Equal Protection Clause.

Under the “one-person, one vote” principle, legislative districts must be drawn with equal population.  This principle was established over fifty years ago in the landmark decision, Reynolds v. Sims, (1964). The dispute in Evenwel focused on what “population” can be utilized.

Plaintiffs, citizens of certain Texas Senate districts, argued drawing the legislative districts based on total population dilutes their votes compared to voters in other Senate districts and thus violates the constitutional mandate of “one-person, one-vote.”   Plaintiffs sought to require Texas to draw its legislative districts based on “voter-eligible population” instead of total population.  Plaintiffs argued total population included many non-voters, such as children and incarcerated individuals.  Plaintiffs argued the fact that districts have different percentages of non-voters leads to the dilution of votes.  Interestingly, using voter-eligible population could shift political power away from urban areas because those districts tend to have a higher number of non-voters.  Political scientists had theorized such a shift would have helped Republicans more than Democrats given the demographics of rural vs. urban areas.

The vote was unanimous and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion.  She wrote, “As history, precedent, and practice demonstrate, it is plainly permissible for jurisdictions to measure equalization by the total population of state and local legislative districts.”

What does this mean for the future? 

The decision did not answer the question of whether it would be constitutional for states to use the voter-eligible population to draw its legislative districts.  Presumably, a state or local government will pass a plan using only voter-eligible population and we’ll then see how the Court feels about diverging from districts created using total population.   But until then, total population remains as an acceptable standard to draw legislative districts.

Evenwel, et al. v. Abbott, Governor of Texas, et al. (slip op.)(April 4, 2016)

Read the full opinion here.