Population, not voters: SCOTUS upholds minority-friendly districting practice

© Mike Segar
The US Supreme Court has upheld the practice of creating voting districts based on the total population, throwing out a challenge that would have seen them redrawn based on eligible voters instead. The decision is seen as a boon to the Democrats.

At stake in the case, known as Evenwel v. Abbott, was the standard for establishing and redrawing legislative districts. The conservative legal foundation Project on Fair Representation sued Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, on behalf of a state Republican official, Sue Evenwel, claiming that basing the boundaries on total population infringed on the rights of eligible voters.

The Supreme Court, while short one member since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, unanimously upheld the Texas court’s decision to keep things as they are.

“As constitutional history, precedent, and practice demonstrate, a State or locality may draw its legislative districts based on total population,” said the summary of the judgment, delivered by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Monday morning.

Had the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the “eligible voters” standard, many of the current districts would have had to be redrawn. Since rural, majority-white districts tend to have more eligible voters, while diverse urban districts have more inhabitants, the current practice benefits the Democrats and their strategy of courting minority voters.

“Flipping those districts would have an immediate impact on Democrats, who would see districts with lots of Latinos but fewer eligible voters be redrawn to take in more voters,” the Washington Post noted in May 2015, when the SCOTUS agreed to take on the case.

While every other justice on the bench was in agreement, the syllabus released by the SCOTUS did note that Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed with some reasoning in “Part III-B,” without specifying what it was.

The doctrine of “one person, one vote” requires that each district has roughly the same number of people in it, with the acceptable variance being about 10 percent. The laws do not specify whether that requirement refers to total population or eligible voters.

Traditionally, the number of representatives was based on total population – with the original US Constitution containing the “three-fifths compromise” clause to account for slaves in the Southern states.

Congressional districts are drawn using the total population figures as established by the decennial census. According to the latest, 2010 figures, the ideal district would have 41,000 inhabitants.

When ensuring compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, however, the states use the number of eligible voters, rather than the population totals, to ensure the districts are set up so that minorities have an equal chance to run for public office.

Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that a district in Florida needed to be re-drawn, because its boundaries were set so as to include a prison, making a good third of the population not actually eligible to vote. This process is known as “gerrymandering,” after Elbridge Gerry, a 19th-century governor of Massachusetts.

Virginia is also facing a legal challenge before the SCOTUS, as the state legislature stands accused of manipulating the congressional districts to keep African-American voters divided.