‘One Person, One Vote’: SCOTUS to Decide if Non-Registered Voters Deserve Representation

The U.S Supreme Court’s October term isn’t filled with landmark cases, but one in particular may have a profound effect on the U.S election system. The Evenwel v. Abbott case was filed back in February by Ed Blum of the Project on Fair Representation. He runs a one man show, with his website’s contact information consisting of his personal cell phone number. Blum is best known for filing the Shelby v. Holder case, which rendered Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional.

His latest legal battle brings a state’s right to interpret the “one person, one vote” baseline into question in Texas. The plaintiffs claim that many legislative districts in the state are malapportioned under the 2013 redistricting plan. The plaintiffs also argue that the court should require states to draw their legislative district lines by dividing up only voters, rather than considering the total population in each legislative district.

In the past, it wasn’t clear whether states were required to draw their roughly equal districts by the number of voters, the total population, or any other standard. However, in the Burns v. Richardson case, the Supreme Court approved Hawaii’s use of the total amount of registered voters rather than the total population, and also ruled that “the decision to include or exclude any such group involves choices about the nature of representation with which we have been shown no constitutionally founded reason to interfere.”

This means that the federal government doesn’t have the constitutional authority to tell the states precisely what criteria must be used in determining the formation of legislative districts.

Considering the Supreme Court’s previous position, some argue that Blum’s lawsuit will not be successful. His website states, however, describes his “as applies” challenge as having a constitutional basis through the requirement of a “legislature to reapportion state senatorial voting districts in conformity with the Fourteenth Amendment to ensure that all votes in Texas State Senate elections will be weighted equally with those of other qualified electors.”

Under Article I, Section 2 of the original Constitution, the apportionment among the states of members to Congress was based on the number of “persons.” For historical context, legislative districts were not always drawn by population, but based on an interpretation of the constitution that “person” only referred to those registered to vote.  

When the Fourteenth Amendment was changed to reflect the abolition of slavery, it was revised to be based on the “whole numbers of persons in each State.”

So, while states currently have the discretion on who to define as a “person” for purposes of apportioning their legislative districts, this case will highlight an increasingly important issue: does the right to representation derive from citizenship alone, or only upon registering to vote?

Regardless, the potential rulings in this case have great significance on the issue of electoral equality and the right to equal representation among all “persons,” whether or not they register to vote.

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