"One Person, One Vote." A Civil Rights Achievement Under Attack

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The Selma to Montgomery marchers arrive at the Alabama State Capitol, March 24, 1965. Credit: Charles Shaw, gettyimages.

The Supreme Court this week hears arguments in Evenwel v. Abbot, a Texas case challenging a historic principle of modern voting rights — “one person, one vote.”  Electoral districts at the federal, state, and local levels are, almost universally, decided according to census data; dividing the population of the districts as equally as possible.  At issue is whether Texas should count only registered voters when mapping State Senate voting districts.

The plaintiffs, rural residents Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger, argue that the Texas legislature should use “eligible voters” rather than “total population” as the determining factor for mapping districts. They are represented by the conservative legal group, Project on Fair Representation – the same group that, in 2013, took on the Voting Rights Act with Shelby County v. Holder. Their concern is that census data includes unauthorized immigrants, felons, and children under age 18. They claim the system, by counting the latter, dilutes the votes of eligible voters who live in less populated districts. A three-judge federal court first dismissed this claim as “a theory never before accepted by the Supreme Court or any circuit court.” Many legal experts were surprised last spring when the Supreme Court opted to hear the case.

Civil rights advocates maintain that officials must represent all their constituents, regardless of voting status, and they are concerned that a decision for the challenger will diminish minority representation in places where the population has many non-citizens (both legal and unauthorized) or people under 18. This would set back growing Latino voting power and hurt districts with large numbers of immigrants. It also might be impossible to administer, since there is no existing census of “eligible voters.”

CARNEGIE CORPORATION OF NEW YORK GRANTEES FILED AMICUS BRIEFS:

The Brennan Center submitted an amicus brief in support of Appellee, Texas governor Greg Abbott.

Nina Perales, VP of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a Carnegie Corporation of NY grantee, submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus and the Texas House of Representatives Mexican American Legislative Caucus, in support of the Appellee.

MORE BACKGROUND:

Not Left, Not Right, but Forward! 50 Years On Advancing U.S. Voting Rights for All. Abigail Deutsch, in Fall 2015 | Carnegie Reporter, provides an insightful overview of the contemporary challenges to the Voting Rights Act that was passed fifty years ago.

Voting Rights and the new Carnegie.org  In honor of National Voter Registration Day, Carnegie Corporation of New York explores the privilege of citizenship through a conversation with grantees, social media initiatives, and an interactive explication of historical documents.

The New Attack on ‘One Person, One Vote.’ Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, provides legal and historical context for the hearing.

Who Gets to be Represented in Congress? Garret Epps, law professor and author of American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court, analyzes the “shaky legal ground” on which the appellants stand.

The Washington Post's Opinions section offers a very good primer.

This interactive tool from Social Explorer, helps to visualize how state legislative and congressional districts would need to change and which groups would be affected.