WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Supreme Court handed conservative challengers a loss Monday in a key voting rights case.
In a unanimous result, the court said a state can draw legislative districts based on total population. At issue in the case was the “one person, one vote” principle dating back to the 1960s, when the court held that state legislative districts must be drawn so they are equal in population.
But, until Monday, justices never specified whether that doctrine applied to the general population or to the voting population. All states currently draw lines based on general population, but two conservative plaintiffs from Texas argued their vote was being diluted in relation to other districts that had the same number of people but fewer voters.
The Obama administration and state of Texas opposed the lawsuit. Civil rights groups watched the case carefully, fearful that if the court were to rule with the plaintiffs, it could potentially shift power from urban areas — districts that tend to include a higher percentage of individuals not eligible to vote such as non-citizens, released felons and children — to rural areas that are more likely to favor Republicans.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion.
“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,” Ginsburg wrote. “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.”
Edward Blum, the director of a conservative group called Project on Fair Representation, backed the challenge by Texas residents Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger. Blum’s group was also behind a 2013 case that invalidated a central provision of the Voting Rights Act as well as a case this term seeking to strike down a race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas.
Blum said Monday his group is “disappointed” in the ruling. “The issue of voter equality in the United States is not going to go away. Some Supreme Court cases grow in importance over time and Evenwel v. Abbott may likely be one of those cases,” he said in a statement.”
The plaintiffs argued that their vote was being diluted in relation to voters in other districts and that Texas must look primarily at the total number of eligible voters when it draws district lines.
“This appeal presents a fundamental question,” William Consovoy, a lawyer for Evenwel, told the justices during oral arguments in December. “That question is whether the one person, one vote rule affords eligible voters any reasonable protection.”
Civil rights groups feared that Latino communities in certain states with nonvoting residents, as well as children and others, would be sharply disadvantaged if the court were to side with Evenwel. “Drawing districts to equalize people is the only way to ensure that the communities where people live and work are fairly represented in the nation’s legislatures,” Michael Li, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program said after oral arguments.
Also supporting Texas was Nathaniel Persily of Stanford Law School, who said that if the court were to say that the Constitution requires states to use the voting population, it could unleash a series of questions regarding the reliability of voter lists and surveys. “A national database of eligible voters does not exist and will not exist in the foreseeable future,” he said in an amicus brief.