Illegal immigrants at center of ‘one person, one vote’ SCOTUS case

Scott Keller, Texas Solicitor General, debriefs media on "one person, one vote" SCOTUS arguments. (Credit: Chance Seales)

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – The United States Supreme Court will hammer out who is covered by the federally-backed “one person, one vote” rule.

On Tuesday, SCOTUS justices grappled with arguments over the constitutionality of counting all residents equally when states carve up electoral districts, like in Arizona and Texas, instead of by eligible voters.

The core disagreement is whether the inclusion of illegal immigrants and felons in urban districts gives more power to minority voters, since voter eligibility is much lower in those areas than in rural districts.

It’s called “vote dilution.”

“Texas did not engage in discrimination… and Texans are not being denied fair representation,” demanded Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller after arguing the Evenwel v. Abbott case before the high court.

Tex. Solicitor General Scott Keller answers questions on "one person, one vote" outside SCOTUS. (Credit: Chance Seales)
Tex. Solicitor General Scott Keller answers questions on “one person, one vote” outside SCOTUS. (Credit: Chance Seales)

Texas, like most states, uses federal census data to create districts, counting all residents equally.

Keller declared that Texas provided “fair representation by ensuring that equal number of residents were in each district” in compliance with federal requirements.

But that argument is unlikely to satisfy critics — and some SCOTUS justices — who might feel conservative votes are being undermined.

Chief Justice John Roberts challenged state lawyers during oral arguments, saying, “It is called ‘one person one vote’… that does seem designed to protect voters,” The New York Times reported.

Under the current system, the U.S. Census counts the country’s population every 10 years, and Congress’ 435 districts are divided up according to its findings.

For instance, if Florida’s population grows but Ohio shrinks, the Sunshine State gains another representative as the Buckeyes lose a representative.

The same goes for state-level government.

After losing previous appeals, voters unhappy with the inclusion of ineligible individuals petitioned the nation’s highest court to mandate a major change, arguing the current “one person, one vote” definition disadvantages them personally.

Although the state districts in question have roughly the same total population on paper, their voting-eligible numbers vary widely, critics argue.

The Texas and Arizona plaintiffs claim their votes are diluted when state leaders pack them and other eligible voters into the same — often rural — districts, which results in their vote becoming less potent.

These “packed” district tend to lean Republican.

On the flip side, litigants argue that voters in traditionally Democratic areas are given undue power since a large portion of residents in their districts are ineligible to cast ballots. This, they say, bolsters the power of left-leaning minority voters.

The political ramifications didn’t the escape the court on Tuesday, but Texas’ solicitor general was steadfast in defending the fairness of existing “one person, one voice” policies.

On the Supreme Court steps, Keller insisted that if his and other states are forced to “get into the mathematical weeds” of equalizing districts’ total population and eligible voters “there would be significant problems, because we wouldn’t be able to take typical criteria into account. We wouldn’t be able to have communities. We wouldn’t be able to have compactness of our districts.”

The court didn’t tip its hand, but if states are ordered to consider voting eligibility when creating districts, it would lead to significant electoral and administration changes nationwide.

Justices will hand down a ruling in the next few months, with a decision expected to be split between the conservative and liberal wings.

Follow Chance Seales on Twitter @ChanceSeales.

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