04 April 2016

Texas Bigots Lose, the Rest of Us Win

These days, conservatives don’t suffer too many unanimous defeats at the Supreme Court, even in its currently unsettled status. But that’s what happened today, when the Court handed down an 8-0 ruling in a case called Evenwel v. Abbott, which had the potential to upend an understanding of democratic representation that has existed for two centuries, and give Republicans a way to tilt elections significantly in their favor before anyone even casts a vote.

The conservatives lost. But losing cases like this one is part of the way they do business. With a (usually) friendly Supreme Court, in recent years they’ve employed a strategy of maximal legal audacity, one that has yielded tremendous benefits to their cause.

This case was a relatively low-profile part of a comprehensive conservative assault on voting rights — or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it an assault on the ease with which people who are more likely to vote Democratic can obtain representation at the ballot box. The question was about how state legislative districts are drawn, and the principle of “one person, one vote.” We’ve long had a legal consensus that all districts in a state have to be approximately the same size, to give everyone equal representation; a state legislature can’t draw one district to include a million people and another district to include only a thousand (although you might point out that we do have a legislative body that violates this principle; it’s called the United States Senate, where Wyoming gets one senator for every 300,000 residents and California gets one senator for every 20 million residents).

The plaintiffs in Evenwell argued that instead of using population to draw district lines, states should use the number of eligible voters. Apart from the fact that we know population numbers fairly precisely because of the census, and we have no such precision regarding eligible voters, that would exclude huge swaths of the public. You might immediately think of undocumented immigrants, but counting only eligible voters would also mean excluding people with green cards on their way to citizenship, children, and those who have had their voting rights taken away because of a criminal conviction. In practice, drawing districts this way would almost inevitably mean taking power away from urban areas more likely to vote Democratic and sending power to rural areas more likely to vote Republican. Which was of course the whole point.
It should be noted, however, that the battle is not over.  The plaintiffs were arguing that districting had to be based on voter rolls, and the Supreme Court ruled that they did not have to.

They did not rule on whether a state can choose to district using this method:

For more than a half-century, the Supreme Court has spoken often of its commitment to the constitutional ideal that every citizen’s vote should count as much as every other’s, but it only now has tried to say just how that equality should be measured. On Monday, it announced the result of that initial effort to define “one person, one vote”: the states mostly get to choose, but they don’t have to switch to a system that few of them have ever tried.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the main opinion in the much-anticipated case of Evenwel v. Abbott, and a hasty reading of it 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 that is not where the Court wound up.

While virtually every argument used by the Ginsburg opinion in favor of basing representation on total population (because elected officials supposedly represent everybody and not just the voters) points toward a constitutional mandate, it turns out that the states actually are not bound by the Constitution to craft new election districts by starting with total population. The only thing settled constitutionally now is that the states also are not required to divide up districts by using the voting population to be assigned to each, making them equal. Should a state do it that way, the opinion seems to say, the Court will then face that issue.

The ruling’s bottom line was unanimous, but the main opinion bore many signs that its warm embrace of the theory of equality of representation had to be qualified by leaving the states with at least the appearance of the power of choice, to hold together six solid votes.
I expect a state legislature to try using registered voters instead of persons for the next redistricting following the 2020 census.


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