The Warren Supreme Court of the 1960's gave us many of our current redistricting rules and laws.
The Warren Supreme Court of the 1960’s gave us many of our current redistricting rules and laws.

Nearly two weeks ago the Supreme Court surprised many individuals by taking up Evenwel vs. Abbott. The case hailing from Texas focuses on a long simmering tension between the VRA and 14th Amendment.

This tension has been ever present since a pair of Supreme Court rulings in 1964 established the one person, one vote test. The rulings forced states to redistrict and ushered in a new political era where rural areas and urban centers lost legislative power to the suburbs.

The debate in Evenwel vs. Abbott specifically centers on whether districts should be drawn along total population or the voting age population. The plantiffs argue drawing lines along total population disenfranchises citizens because districts with more citizens have higher eligible voter populations and thus higher turnout.

Here’s a simple way to think about it.  Say two districts in State A have equal populations of 250,000 people.  District 1 has 200,000 eligible voters but District 2 has only 150,000 eligible voters.  Yet each district is represented equally.  Such a scenario disenfranchises the district with a higher eligible voter population.

The court has never fully settled whether districts should be drawn based on voting age population or total residents. A series of rulings in the late 60s and 70s gave mapmakers a guideline but no final rule to obey.  In such an absence states began to draw districts based on total population.

The court’s decision to take the case likely indicates there is some support for the plantiffs position. For example, Justice Clarence Thomas has indicated in past rulings he would like the court to at the very least examine the issue. This time they will.

If the court rules in favor of the plantiffs it is important to consider the social and partisan consequences of such a ruling. For such a decision would come at a time next year when Republicans dominate dozens of states.

Republicans would surely seek to capitalize on the ruling and consolidate their hold on the states. They would be aided by demographic patterns and the political map (Nate Cohn has a great article on it here). Consider the modern Democratic Party is based in major urban centers and their core suburbs. But many of these urban centers have high non citizen populations. GOP districts based in white suburbs and rural areas have fewer immigrants. In NYC, two districts have over 20% non citizen populations. Both are Democratic. To comply with the court’s ruling mapmakers would have to draw one of these districts into the more GOP friendly Nassua County.

In California and TX Democrats would be hurt as well. A majority of the Democratic districts outside major urban areas in TX have high non citizen populations. Located along the Rio Grande river many of these heavily Hispanic districts would likely need to be connected to Republican suburbs with larger eligible voter populations.

Finally, in CA numerous Democratic districts could be imperiled. Take Rep. Jim Costa’s district that borders two GOP districts. To keep Costa’s district safe Democrats would need to sacrifice somewhere and potentially make a neighboring district more Republican. Democratic districts around Orange County might also need to be shifted around and a few might become more Republican.

Socially, such a ruling could usher in an era of urban and heavily minority areas losing political clout. Considering Republican strength in the states and where their support comes from these Democratic strongholds could see their interests ignored. There is also the argument that everybody should be represented, citizen or not.  However, if this was the case we would all non-citizens to vote to give them equal representation to citizens.

However, a ruling in favor of the plantiffs seems unlikely. It would easily conflict with the VRA’s requirement allowing minorities to more easily elect their preferred members. Further, such a decision would easily upend the balance of power and make urban areas once again disenfranchised politically.
All in all, the court’s willingness to take the case indicates they want to settle or at least weigh in on the issue. And that has to give Democrats a severe case of heartburn.

Addendum: This will not be the first time the court has weighed in on redistricting issues. Section V of the VRA and the AZ legislature’s pending case indicate this court is willing to examine such issues in such depth not seen since the 60s and 70s.

Addendum 2: I failed to note in the article how the Supreme Court feels on the issue might be hinted by their ruling in Perez vs. Texas.  For a run-down of the issue you can check here but at its core the issue centers on minority districts being drawn according to population and not turnout.  If the Court rules in favor of Democrats it might net them an extra district in TX but it might also indicate the Court is seriously considering allowing redistricting along eligible voters and not total population.


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