Most people are familiar with the term ???one person, one vote.??? But what exactly does it mean? Probably the most common understanding is that it requires each voting district to have the same number of people in it. If I live in a town with 10,000 people in it and you live in a town with 100,000, and each town has one representative in the state house, my vote is much more powerful than yours. The concept seems fair and logical enough.
But let???s say we both live in towns with the same total number of people. But in my town half of the people aren???t citizens while in yours everyone is a citizen? Should my town still get to vote for one representative just as yours does? Should non-citizens be counted just as citizens? That is a critical question that has just been taken up by the Supreme Court in a case out of Texas called Evenwel v. Abbott.
The answer seems obvious from the very concept ???one person, one vote.??? Every citizen gets one vote, not two or one-half. The Supreme Court seems to have made this clear decades ago when it stated in the Hadley case from 1970 that voting districts should be set up ???on a basis that will ensure, as far as is practicable, that equal numbers of voters can vote proportionately for equal numbers of officials.??? The lower court in Evenwel disagreed, though, and said that equal total population should get equal representation, regardless of how many actual citizen voters are in the district.
In many parts of the country, that???s the status quo. Texas used the total population of areas in order to draw legislative districts for state representatives after the 2010 census. But some areas of Texas have high proportions of the population who are not citizens. Based on the actual numbers, the result is that some districts in Texas have 1.5 times the number of actual voters than in others.
The case presents two competing schools of thought. In one, each person???s vote should roughly equal that of other voters. Under that logic, a group of voters should get to vote for the same number of representatives as another group of the same number of voters. Accordingly, the constitution requires that states use voting age citizen population as the basis for drawing voting districts.
The competing school maintains that each representative should come from a district with the same total population. If only voters are taken into consideration, then potentially areas with large populations will still only get one representative. What about children who are citizens, for example? Shouldn???t they be ???represented????
This idea gives off an air of ???fairness,??? but it fails when you break it down. Should a household with ten kids get more votes than a family with one kid? It sounds absurd, but that???s exactly what the second school is advocating. Hypothetically, if a town had one representative per dozen people, then one family would get a representative, while three or four other families would share one representative. Hardly seems ???fair??? anymore doesn???t it?
Fundamentally, the Supreme Court should reverse the result in the case and mandate voting age citizen population because using total population seriously cheapens the dignity and value of citizenship and the right to vote. The Supreme Court???s older ???one person-one vote??? cases repeatedly refer to ???equal numbers of voters??? and ???the votes of citizens.??? Citizenship in this country is a precious thing, and its essence is the right to vote.
When I became a permanent resident, the main thing that separated me from the citizens living and working around me was the right to vote. I gained that precious right when I became a citizen. Before that, it never would have occurred to me that I should be counted along with those who could vote when drawing a voting district. It???s time for the Supreme Court to recognize this fundamental logic.
Joseph Vanderhulst is an attorney at the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to protecting and restoring election integrity. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.