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Supreme Court to Hear Case That Could Radically Change Redistricting

The Supreme Court Tuesday agreed to hear a Texas redistricting case, Evenwel v. Abbott, that could end up making it harder to draw Latino-majority districts in places like Texas.

May 26, 2015

The Supreme Court Tues­day agreed to hear a Texas redis­trict­ing case, Even­wel v. Abbott, that could force states and local govern­ments to change how they divide their popu­la­tion into districts — and could end up making it harder to draw Latino-major­ity districts in places like Texas.

Today, virtu­ally every juris­dic­tion in the coun­try draws districts using total popu­la­tion, mean­ing that the goal for mapdraw­ers is simply to make sure that districts contain the same number of people in total. In calcu­lat­ing the number of people in a district, it does not matter, under the current system, whether a person is a citizen or non-citizen or under the age of 18 or other­wise eligible to vote. A person is a person.

A group of Texas resid­ents chal­lenged this long­stand­ing prac­tice, contend­ing that in places like Texas with large numbers of non-citizens, the rule means some districts have many more actual voters than others. They say it viol­ates the Consti­tu­tion’s one-person, one-vote prin­ciple and the rule should be changed to require districts be drawn on the basis of citizen popu­la­tion over the age of 18, or some equi­val­ent meas­ure.

They lost in the lower court, but if the Supreme Court reverses, the change could have a dramatic impact on minor­ity repres­ent­a­tion where those popu­la­tions contain large numbers of non-citizens or people under 18.

To under­stand why, consider the hypo­thet­ical state below, which has 400 resid­ents (all of whom for simpli­city sake are adults).

In this hypo­thet­ical state, the major­ity of the popu­la­tion is white (62 percent), but the state also has a size­able and grow­ing Latino popu­la­tion that makes up the rest of the popu­la­tion. Of the Latino popu­la­tion, 42 percent are citizens and 58 percent are non-citizens. As shown in the map below, the Latino popu­la­tion is heav­ily concen­trated in the north­west­ern part of the state, though, as in real world places like Texas, there are pock­ets of Lati­nos through­out the state.


Draw­ing maps using total popu­la­tion (the current system)

Right now, the state, like other states, uses total popu­la­tion to appor­tion districts. That means when it comes time to draw district bound­ar­ies, mapdraw­ers simply divide the total popu­la­tion (400) by the number of districts (4) to derive a popu­la­tion target of 100 for each district.

Because voting is polar­ized along ethnic lines — with the white and Latino communit­ies prefer­ring differ­ent candid­ates — the Voting Rights Act also requires mapdraw­ers  to see if they can draw a reas­on­ably compact district where Lati­nos make up a major­ity of the eligible voters in order to give the Latino community a fair shot at elect­ing a candid­ate.

In this case, that could be done by draw­ing a district in the north­w­est quad­rant of the state where there are 24 eligible Latino voters and 14 eligible white voters. Under this scen­ario, given ethnic­ally polar­ized voting, white voters are likely to control three legis­lat­ive districts and Latino voters one.

Draw­ing maps using adult citizen popu­la­tion 

Districts would look very differ­ent if the Supreme Court requires states to draw districts using adult citizen popu­la­tion.

In that case, mapdraw­ers would start by subtract­ing the 90 non-citizens from the popu­la­tion count to derive a base popu­la­tion of 310 and then divide that figure by four to have a target popu­la­tion per district of about 78.

They then would see if they could draw a district where Lati­nos made up a major­ity of the popu­la­tion, mean­ing, in this case, at least 40 out of the district’s 78 people. Because of the disper­sion of the state’s Latino popu­la­tion, mapdraw­ers would need to reach into the south­west­ern quad­rant of the state to find addi­tional large pock­ets of eligible Latino voters to get from 24 to 40. This would result in a district that was both phys­ic­ally larger and less compact than was possible when mapdraw­ers could use total popu­la­tion.

Although in this scen­ario it is still possible to draw a Latino major­ity district, its lack of compact­ness could leave it vulner­able to legal chal­lenge. It also would mean that whoever was elec­ted to repres­ent the district would end up serving a signi­fic­antly higher number of total people.  

In this hypo­thet­ical, the Latino major­ity district has 157 total people — 77 citizens and 80 non-citizens — compared to just 77 total people in the all-white cent­ral district, 78 people in the north­east district, and 88 people in the south­east district. Since non-citizens, like citizens, have a  need for constitu­ent services — in the form of everything from students seek­ing summer intern­ships to perman­ent resid­ents lobby­ing for changes to rent laws — that means the legis­lator for the densely popu­lated, sprawl­ing Latino major­ity district might well find it harder to meet constitu­ent needs.

In short, the rami­fic­a­tions of Even­wel could reshape redis­trict­ing in many ways. The voting rights community will be watch­ing closely.