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Justices Take Cautious Approach to 'One Person, One Vote'

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on December 09, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Don't bet all your money on a ground-shaking, tradition-breaking ruling in the Supreme Court's 'one person, one vote' cases.

Caution ruled the day at Tuesday's oral arguments, as the Supreme Court debated just how best to ensure equal representation in voting districts. And few of the justices seemed eager to make drastic changes to the districting status quo. Here are the highlights.

One Person, One Vote, Two Arguments

The Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases challenging state voting districts on Tuesday. Both take on the idea of "one person, one vote," a cornerstone of modern democracy. Does that principal require governments to draw legislative districts based on total population, representing everyone whether they can or do vote? Or should voting districts seek to maintain equal amounts of voters, reducing the impact of children, non-citizens, and non-voters in elections?

Petitioners in both cases, Evenwel v. Abbott and Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, challenged redistricting decisions that were based on total population. Both argue that redistricting must balance total population and registered voters -- something that is mathematically feasible, but which could potentially cause legislative districts to jump across political divisions such as city and county lines.

Evenwel, which we previewed earlier in the week, presents the most straight-forward challenge to using total population. Harris brings in questions about the Voting Rights Act as well, including whether meeting the VRA's requirements can permit a greater deviation from "one person, one vote."

Don't Expect Big Changes

At oral arguments, the justices seemed to take a practical approach to the issues raised. The liberal justices were the most reluctant to move away from total population. Basing representation on total numbers means that non-voting groups, disproportionately the young, minorities, and urban residents, have a greater impact on politics than they would in a system which emphasized registered voters.

During the Harris arguments, Justice Breyer said that any deviation of less than 10 percent from the ideal would be "minor," presumably not implicating the Equal Protection Clause. Justice Sotomayor noted that respecting political boundaries was common in drawing voting districts. She didn't seem convinced by the petitioners' argument that drawing districts along county lines would be a constitutional violation if it resulted in uneven numbers of voters and was done in 'a systematic and intentional manner."

Justice Alito seemed most willing to entertain the claims petitioners were advancing. Imagine, he proposed during the Evenwel arguments, two districts with similar population. One has a large prison, increasing its census numbers but not its voters. The second district has the same population, but a much larger number of voters. The fewer voters in the first district would have a greater impact, vote for vote, than the many voters in the second. "Is that okay?" he wondered.

Por Qué No Los Dos?

Justice Kennedy seemed to be willing to consider using both total numbers and eligible voters. When Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller was defending his state's plan, Justice Kennedy asked, "Why does it have to be one or the other?"

The answer might be: because of necessity. While the federal government conducts a massive census every decade, that census looks only at the number of people present. There is no similar review of where voters are located. When Kennedy asked about whether any studies had tried to reconcile the two numbers, he was told there were none -- a fact that quickly silenced that line of inquiry.

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