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Evenwel v. Abbott (Amicus Brief)

On April 4, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the longstanding practice of drawing legislative districts on the basis of total population.

Published: April 4, 2016

On April 4, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the longstanding practice of drawing legislative districts on the basis of total population. Justice Ginsburg’s opinion upholding the one-person, one-vote principle is a big win for fair representation and helps guard against efforts to manipulate voting rules.

Case Background

States have typically been given the authority to decide how to count their population for redistricting purposes. And at present, every jurisdiction in the country draws districts using some form of total population, meaning that the goal for mapdrawers is simply to make sure that districts contain the same total number of people. Under this system, it does not matter when calculating the target population for each district whether someone is a citizen or non-citizen, under the age of 18, or otherwise eligible to vote – a person is a person.

A group of Texas residents challenged this longstanding practice, however, with respect to Texas’ state senate districts, contending that in places like Texas that have large numbers of non-citizens, calculating the number of people in each district based on total population causes some districts to have many more actual voters than others. They said this practice violates the Constitution’s one-person, one-vote principle and that jurisdictions should be required to draw districts on the basis of citizen population over the age of 18, or some equivalent measure.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas rejected the challenge on November 5, 2014, holding that the plaintiffs failed to show that the state’s use of total population violated their rights under the Equal Protections Clause.

If the Supreme Court had reversed the district court, the change could have dramatically impacted minority representation where the population contains large numbers of non-citizens or people under 18. Some observers, for example, pointed out that it could have made it much more difficult to draw majority-minority districts if states were required to draw districts based on citizen voting population. They also noted that, in addition to removing non-citizens, such a rule would exclude children and citizens who are simply not registered to vote. This exclusion, advocates for using total population argued, would be improper because children and non-citizen permanent residents still require constituent services from their elected officials and, as a result, excluding them would dilute their representation.

The district court opinion is available here. The transcript of the oral argument is available here and the audio is available here.

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