The Constitution has been understood for the past half-century to require that no individual’s vote count more at election time than anyone else’s. The Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday, for the first time, to clarify how that concept of equality is to be measured, when legislatures are drawing up election districts.
The Court took on a case challenging the 2011 redistricting of the thirty-one seats in the Texas Senate, focusing on what measure of population should be used to judge whether the “one-person, one-vote” mandate has been met. That mandate originated in Reynolds v. Sims in 1964. The new case of Evenwel v. Abbott will be heard and decided next Term, as will two new criminal cases the Justices also agreed on Tuesday to hear.
The Justices’ move into the Texas Senate redistricting case comes fourteen years after Justice Clarence Thomas, in Chen v. City of Houston in May 2001, was the sole member of the Court who went on record in favor of sorting out “what measure of population should be used for determining whether the population is equally distributed among the districts.”
The usual choice considered by legislatures is to make districts more or less equal by dividing up shares of the state’s total population, or, as an alternative, to draw lines based upon some measure of the voting members of the population — such as the numbers actually registered to vote.
Two Texas voters, who wound up in state senate districts where they say their votes will count less than the votes in another district even though each of those districts has about the same total number of people, argued that this contradicts the “one-person, one-vote” guarantee of voter equality. Their votes would have counted equally, they contended, if the legislature instead had used voting-age population as the measure.
The voters, Sue Evenwel, who lives in Titus County in Senate District 1, and Edward Pfenninger, who lives in Montgomery County in District 4, said their votes were diluted because of the disparity between the two measures as applied to those districts, where more of the people vote proportionally. Both districts are rural. Other, more urban districts have proportionally fewer registered voters, so the redistricting plan based on actual population is said to give those who do vote more weight — that is, fewer of them can control the outcome.
“A statewide districting plan that distributes voters or potential voters in a grossly uneven way,” the two voters told the Court, “is patently unconstitutional under Reynolds v. Sims and its progeny.”
The voters do not argue that legislatures should be forbidden ever to use total population as the districting measure, but only when it results in the kind of disparity, compared to a plan based on voters’ numbers, that resulted in Texas.
At the theoretical core of this dispute is the theory of representation that a legislature should follow. Texas, supported by the lower court in the new cases, argued that this is a question of how to define democracy, a question that it said should be left to the people’s elected representatives, and not decided by the courts. The state also contended that the Supreme Court had said explicitly in a 1966 decision (Burns v. Richardson) that the choice of population measure was a matter for legislatures.