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One Person, One Vote, One Very Important Supreme Court Case

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

It's one of the cornerstones of modern democracy: one person, one vote. But as straight-forward as the phrase sounds, there are some major ambiguities lurking in the wings. Such as, who counts as "one person?" Everyone living in a state? Just American citizens? Just voters?

The Supreme Court will take up those questions when it hears oral arguments for Evenwel v. Abbott on Tuesday, as it decides whether states may use total population or voter population when drawing legislative districts.

How to Measure "One Person"

Evenwel comes from a Texas plan to reapportion its state legislative districts. (As an interesting aside: litigation of that same plan led to the Supreme Court decision striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act two years ago.)

The Texas constitution requires the state to reapportion senate districts after every federal decennial census. After Texas's first plan was found to violate the Voting Rights Act, an interim plan was created that would divide senate districts based on total state population. Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger sued, arguing that, as registered voters, the plan violated their Equal Protection Clause rights "by not apportioning districts to equalize both total population and voter population," according to the district court.

There are many potential, conflicting ways of measuring "one person, one vote," after all. You could, as Texas did, tally up everyone. That number would include children, felons, non-citizens, and non-voters: folks who fit the "one person" definition, but not "one vote." Alternatively, you could look at just registered voters, a number that would leave much of the country unaccounted for -- especially in a state like Texas, which has one of the lowest voter registration rates in the country.

It's a question of clout as much as mathematics. Relying on the number of eligible voters would increase the influence of wealthier, older, and more conservative voters, while reducing the influence of the poorer, minorities, and non-voters in redistricting.

People, Voters, or Both?

Evenwel argues that the Equal Protection Clause demands a hybrid approach, dividing legislative districts between equal shares of both total population and voter population. Others believe that any approach but total population would undermine the influence of communities with fewer voters. Thom Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund says that "the plaintiffs in Texas are interested in stemming the growth of Latino political power," not ensuring equal protection.

The Supreme Court has never fully articulated what counts as "one person, one vote." But, as Lyle Dennison notes:

Actually, when the Supreme Court in the 1964 decision in Reynolds v. Sims first mandated equality, it used the idea of population and voters interchangeably. "The overriding objective," it said, "must be substantial equality among the various districts, so that the vote of any citizen is approximately equal in weight to that of any other citizen in the state."

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