Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Supreme Court Takes Up One Person, One Vote Case

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Supreme Court Takes Up One Person, One Vote Case

Article excerpt

Most Americans have heard of the principle of one person, one vote. It stands for the proposition that in a representative democracy everyone gets an equal say at the ballot box.

But what most Americans probably don't know is that one person, one vote in the United States in 2015 doesn't necessarily mean that everyone's vote will be given the same weight.

In practice, the relative strength of one citizen's vote in relation to any other citizen's vote depends on how election districts are drawn and populated. That's because whoever is drawing the voting districts can rig the boundaries in a certain way to dilute a person's vote in one district while enhancing voting power in another district.

It is an effective way to boost the chances that a Republican or a Democrat will win, or make it easier for minority voters to elect candidates of their choice. But does this kind of manipulation of the electorate comport with the constitutional requirement of equal protection and the principle of one person, one vote?

That's the question at the center of a case set for oral argument at the US Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The question arises in a controversial case from Texas that could result in a substantial redrafting of voting districts across the country, particularly in Hispanic districts with large populations of noncitizens.

In the Texas case, two voters from different voting districts are challenging the method used to set the boundaries for election to the Texas state senate. The voters charge that the election districts significantly dilute votes cast in certain districts while enhancing the voting power of those casting ballots in other districts.

Here's how it happens. As in most states, officials in Texas relied on total population figures from the US Census as their base measure upon which to equalize the size of each of the state's 31 senate districts.

The idea is to form election districts that contain roughly the same number of potential constituents for each elected state senator, thus guaranteeing equal representation. The problem is that not all election districts drawn in this way contain an equal number of qualified voters.

Some sections of Texas have large numbers of noncitizens, who cannot vote, as well as a high proportion of children under the age of 18, who are too young to vote. While children and noncitizens count for purposes of equal representation, their inclusion in the mapping of voting districts can sometimes serve to enhance the voting power of eligible voters in that district vis a vis other districts with a higher proportion of voting-age citizens.

What this discrepancy ultimately means is that it can take significantly fewer votes to elect a state senator in certain districts in Texas than in others.

Based on the total population in Texas, the average senate voting district should contain 811,000 residents. But that number has no relation to the total number of eligible voters in each district, which can vary substantially.

For example, the citizen voting-age population in District 1 is 570,000. In contrast, there are only 370,000 citizens of voting age in the Texas senate district with the least number of voters (District 27).

That represents a 40 percent deviation from one district to the other. Ultimately, it means that a voter in the district with fewer voting age citizens wields voting power that is one and a half times that of a voter in District 1.

All of these differences exist even though both districts are apportioned to contain roughly the same total populations.

It is the resulting discrepancy among voters that the challengers in the Texas case say violates the one person, one vote principle.

That principle was highlighted in a 1964 landmark Supreme Court decision in a case called Reynolds v. Sims. In that case the high court invalidated a voting district plan for the Alabama state senate in which instead of apportioning the seats equally across the state by population, it assigned one senator to each county. …

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