Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Supreme Court Reaffirms One-Person-One-Vote Standard

By Leland Ware

On April 4, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected an effort to reinterpret the “one person, one vote” rule of Constitutional law. In Evenwel v. Abbot a group of voters in Texas claimed that legislative districts apportioned based on total populations diluted their votes in comparison to voters in other districts. The challengers contended that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires jurisdictions to draw state and local legislative districts with equal voter-eligible populations. This interpretation would have redrawn the American political map in favor of a whiter, older, and more conservative electorate. Republicans would have gained a significant advantage in state elections across the country.

The U.S. Constitution provides that Congressional representatives “shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers.” U. S. Const., Art. I, §2, Cl. 3. In this case the Court concluded that the basis of representation in the House was intended to include all inhabitants. Debates at the Constitutional Convention made it clear that when the delegates agreed that the House should represent “the people,” they intended that the number assigned to each state should be determined solely on the basis of the numbers of inhabitants. The Court noted that while it may not be possible to draw congressional districts with mathematical precision, the Constitution’s objective of making equal representation for equal numbers of people is a fundamental goal for the House of Representatives. 

The Supreme Court first required states to draw their legislative districts with roughly equal populations in two landmark decisions, Baker v. Carr in 1962 and Reynolds v. Sims in 1964. These decisions established the “one-person, one-vote” rule in American constitutional law. Before then several Southern states gerrymandered legislative districts in ways that diluted the voting rights of African Americans by giving more weight to rural, predominately white districts. 

In the years following Baker and Reynolds the Supreme Court has consistently looked to total population numbers when evaluating whether districting maps violate the Equal Protection Clause by deviating impermissibly from population equality. Moreover, adopting voter-eligible apportionment as constitutional requirement would upset the approach to districting that all 50 States and countless local jurisdictions have followed for decades. The Court held that states may rely on total populations when drawing their legislative districts.

 Evenwel was the latest effort of the Project on Fair Representation, a conservative legal group that specializes in mounting legal challenges to Civil Rights legislation and Supreme Court decisions. The group’s most significant victory was the 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It also filed an amicus brief in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project urging the Court to strike down a key interpretation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The majority ruled against them, holding that the disparate impact theory applies to cases asserting claims under the Fair Housing Act. The group is also involved in Fisher v. University of Texas which targets affirmative-action policies in higher education. A ruling in that case is still pending. 

The efforts to undermine the Civil Rights of minorities will continue as our proportion of the population grows and eventually creates a majority-minority America.

Leland Ware is the  Louis L. Redding Professor of Law & Public Policy at the University of Delaware.

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