One Person, One Vote
“One Person, One Vote” is the ideal that there should be equality of population among the voting districts so that the vote of one citizen is roughly equal to any other citizen of the state. At least, that was the holding of Reynods v. Sims, a 1964 Supreme Court case, that addressed the issue. In the 50 years that has followed, the Supreme Court has not had to give guidance on how to achieve that goal. Until now.
On April 4, 2016, the United States Supreme Court ruled on the case of Evenwel v. Abbott. The Court unanimously affirmed the Western District of Texas’s take that a state or locality may create legislative districts based on total population. As Lyle Denniston explains, “a hasty reading of [the opinion] might suggest that the states must use one formula in drawing election maps: take the total number of people in a state, and then divide up that total by the number of seats in the legislature or local governing bodies, with the answer dictating how many people (give or take a few) should be in each district.”
But, Denniston says, “that is now where the Court wound up.”
He believes that a more careful reading shows that the court stopped shy of making any broad determinations regarding how this ideal should be implemented. In fact, the Court rejected both Texas’s argument that districts should be divided equally among equal populations of voters, and the Obama administration’s position that total population should be divided equally among districts.
Denniston concludes that if “the Court had opted to require states to use voter population as the basis for redistricting, that would have had the real-world political effect of favoring Republican candidates. That is because voters tend to register and actually vote more often in districts that favor Republicans compared to urban areas that favor Democrats and in which more individuals not eligible to vote-for example, children, prison inmates, ex-convicts, and immigrants who are not U.S. citizens-reside.”
In sum, all that the Evenwel ruling appears to tell us is that Texas’s paradigm is constitutional, and that as Justice Alito stated “[w]hether a state is permitted to use some measure other than the total population is an important and sensitive question that we can consider if and when we have before us a state districting plan that, unlike the current Texas plan, uses something other than total population as the basis for equalizing the size of districts.”
— Derek A. Jordan, Esq., Barnes Law
Derek A. Jordan is an associate attorney with Barnes Law, licensed to practice law in Tennessee.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
 Note that Texas’s “Plan S172’s total deviation from perfectly equal population across districts is 8.04%, which falls below the 10% deviation need to make out a prima facie case. But [the plaintiff’s] alleged that, when measured by voters, their two districts deviated from an ideal Senate district by between 31% and 49%. (A district may have a total population roughly equal to another district but far fewer eligible voters because it has far more children, aliens, prisoners, ex-felons, temporary military personnel, and so on.) See: http://www.naag.org/publications/nagtri-newsletters/civil-rights-bulletin/civil-rights-bulletin-december-2015-february-2016.php