Does the constitution guarantee every person the right to an equally weighted vote? or just to eligible voters? or perhaps just citizens? The Supreme Court has been resolute when it comes to protecting the right to an equally weighted vote. So much so, that despite its reluctance to get into what it called the “political thicket” of drawing political district lines – a job designated to state legislatures by the constitution, it has made clear in a series of decisions beginning with Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 569 (1964), that population equality among districts is a constitutional necessity.
Hence, states endure the politically charged parade of maps every ten years as congressional, legislative and local government districts are redrawn. A full 5 redistricting cycles since Sims, the question of what population needs to be equal still remains; That is, does the total population in districts, the voting age population, the citizen voting age population, or registered voters need to be equal? Evenwel v. Abbott, a case against the Texas legislature’s 2013 senate map seeks to answer this open question for good as the Supreme Court has granted certiorari and will hear the case this term.
The overwhelming majority of jurisdictions use “total population” as the relevant metric for redistricting, whether it be congressional districts, state legislative lines or county council districts. The Supreme Court did approve Hawaii’s use of registered voters in drawing its state legislative districts Burns v. Richardson, 384 U.S. 73 (1966), but it came with several warnings about accuracy of the data going forward. Indeed, a federal district court invalidated a subsequent Hawaii map based on registered voters in 1982 (Travis v. King, 552 F. Supp 554 (D. Hawaii 1982). It seems as though courts are okay with alternative population bases (like registered voters) if the end result approximates what you would get using total population.
Amicus briefs are piling up for Evenwel as many jurisdictions, organizations and others have a dog in this fight. We will discuss many of them in the weeks preceding oral argument.