Important Supreme Court ruling on voting rights

The US Supreme Court issued an important unanimous 8-0 ruling today in a case involving voting rights. States are required to draw electoral districts that have roughly equal numbers of people. The question is whether the ‘people’ who count should be every resident (even those who cannot vote) or just eligible voters. The former has been the universal practice, since the argument has been that government serves everyone, voters and non-voters alike.

But in Texas, that practice has been challenged by those who say that the basis should be just eligible voters, using citizen-voting-age-population (CVAP) data obtained from the annual statistical sample of the U. S. population taken by the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). Such a change would result in fewer districts allocated to cities and other urban centers and more for rural and suburban populations.

Today the court ruled that states can use total population as the basis but it did not rule on whether they are required to do so. The court essentially said that the constitutionality of whether states can use the voter-eligible data instead of total population data would have to await another case. All it was saying at this time was that using total population was constitutionally permissible and it was not ruling on whether other possible methods were required or permissible.

Here are some passages from justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion.

Texas, like all other States, draws its legislative districts on the basis of total population. Plaintiffs- appellants are Texas voters; they challenge this uniform method of districting on the ground that it produces unequal districts when measured by voter-eligible population. Voter-eligible population, not total population, they urge, must be used to ensure that their votes will not be devalued in relation to citizens’ votes in other districts. We hold, based on constitutional history, this Court’s decisions, and longstanding practice, that a State may draw its legislative districts based on total population. (p.1)

Today, all States use total- population numbers from the census when designing congressional and state-legislative districts, and only seven States adjust those census numbers in any meaningful way. (p.4)

Consistent with constitutional history, this Court’s past decisions reinforce the conclusion that States and localities may comply with the one-person, one-vote principle by designing districts with equal total populations. (p.15)

Adopting voter-eligible apportionment as constitutional command would upset a well-functioning approach to districting that all 50 States and countless local jurisdictions have followed for decades, even centuries. Appellants have shown no reason for the Court to disturb this longstanding use of total population. (p.18)

In sum, the rule appellants urge has no mooring in the Equal Protection Clause. The Texas Senate map, we therefore conclude, complies with the requirements of the one-person, one-vote principle.15 Because history, precedent, and practice suffice to reveal the infirmity of appellants’ claims, we need not and do not resolve whether, as Texas now argues, States may draw districts to equalize voter-eligible population rather than total population. (p.19)

Lyle Denniston suggests that this narrow ruling was crafted so as to gain the assent of a majority of justices, thus enabling it to avoid a 4-4 tie that sets nationwide noprecedent.

The ruling’s bottom line was unanimous, but the main opinion bore many signs that its warm embrace of the theory of equality of representation had to be qualified by leaving the states with at least the appearance of the power of choice, in order to hold together six solid votes.

Two of the eight Justices were clearly not satisfied with the rhetoric and some of the implications of Justice Ginsburg’s opinion, and only joined in the outcome. Those were Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., and Clarence Thomas, each of whom wrote separately. Thomas also joined most of Alito’s opinion.

Had Justice Ginsburg not held five colleagues in support of what her opinion actually said in the end, two — perhaps Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — might have abandoned the common result. The result then might have been that the Court would have split four-to-four, settling nothing and releasing no opinion at all while leaving intact a three-judge federal district court’s ruling that Texas had the authority to base its state legislative seats on a division of the total population of Texas.

Texas actually had wanted the Court to allow it to use a total population metric, but to go further and give the states explicit constitutional permission to map out districts with equal populations of voters. The Obama administration also had wanted the Court to rule that the Constitution actually required total population as the starting point for redistricting. Neither persuaded the Court to go take those further steps.

So today saw another victory, however small, over efforts to further strengthen the power of the traditionally Republican electoral base.


  1. says

    “Such a change would result in fewer districts allocated to cities and other urban centers and more for rural and suburban populations.”
    I (sadly) live in TX and I have long noticed that the cities are pretty liberal (I even have a couple of Bernie banners in my neighbourhood) but the country not so much. Isn’t that a funny coincidence?!?

  2. moarscienceplz says

    In sum, the rule appellants urge has no mooring in the Equal Protection Clause.

    IANAL, but it looks to me as if the rule the appellants urge actually violates the
    Equal Protection Clause. I suppose they could dust off an old Constitutional precedent and come up with a new rule that says that non-voter-eligible people count as 3/5 of a person. ;-p

  3. dannorth says

    Does anybody knows why rural areas would have a larger proportion of potential voters?

  4. Mano Singham says

    The total number of people in an area is the sum of eligible voters plus non-eligible voters. Urban areas tend to have a higher proportion of the latter because non-citizens plus people who have lost the right to vote (such as people who have felony records) tend to live in urban areas.

  5. says

    @3 dannorth.

    What Mano said. Though, I do wonder if rural areas would have larger numbers of children, proportionally. I am near certain this would have been the case 50 years when rural families had large numbers of children to serve essentially as slave labor (because farmer’s kids are except, or must be as I’ve never seen anyone punished for it, from child labor laws). This was certainly the case in the area of North Dakota in which I was raised.
    With there being more corporate farms these days (plus advances in technology that make farming easier), this may not be as true today. So whatever advantage they may have in the area of children, it may not be, and probably is not, enough to offset the non-citizens and non-eligible voters of the cities.

  6. lorn says

    Equal districts based upon eligible voters makes sense because congregations of non-eligible voters, prisons come to mind, would distort the maps and make the few voters within those districts much more powerful than voters in areas without congregation of non-eligible voters.

    On the other hand, representation is supposed to be on behalf of all residents in a district, eligible and non-eligible voters alike. In example: children under 18 are, and deserve to be, represented.

    Of course, some of the conflict is muted simply because legislators typically most strongly represent the wishes of those who donate more money. It is a functional pay-to-play system. This is entirely independent of their eligibility to vote.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *