Evenwel v. Abbott: Supreme Court Reaffirms Their Stance on One Person, One Vote

By: Bob Matthews

Member,  American Journal of Trial Advocacy

During one of the most controversial and polarizing presidential elections in United States history, the Supreme Court recently ensured that the “one person, one vote” doctrine remains the law of the land in the United States. More than fifty years ago, the Supreme Court formally adopted the “one person, one vote” doctrine. In a series of cases in the 1960s[1], the Supreme Court determined that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause requires that voting districts be drawn equally on the basis of population because “[l]egislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.”[2] On April 4, 2016, the Supreme Court unanimously reaffirmed the “one person, one vote” doctrine in Evenwel v. Abbott.[3]

In Evenwel v. Abbott, the Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Texas had to draw voting districts on the basis of the total number of eligible voters, rather than on the basis of total population.[4] Plaintiffs argued that simply using total population as the basis for voter districts violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause by diluting the effect of their vote.[5] In support of their argument, plaintiffs urged that voters in districts with a high total population, but a low number of eligible voters, would have a much more substantial effect with their vote than voters in districts with both high total populations and high numbers of eligible voters.[6] With a 6-0 majority and 2 concurring opinions, the Court unanimously rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that states have to rely solely on the total number of eligible voters when drawing voter districts.[7]

For decades, the Court has required states to draw voting districts equally. Originally, the doctrine developed to combat disproportionate populations in voting districts, some of which had not been adjusted in decades. Ideally, votes in one district carry, more or less, the same weight as votes in every other district within the state. The majority noted that all fifty states currently utilize the total population approach used by Texas.[8]

Although all eight justices agreed that Texas did not have to base districts on the number of eligible voters, the concurring opinions suggest the next looming question on this issue: can states use the number of eligible voters as the basis for drawing districts? Texas argued that the state could choose between using the total population or the total number of eligible voters as the basis—essentially Texas, and therefore other states, have the authority to choose the basis for voting districts so long as the districts are equal.[9] The United States, however, filed an amicus brief disagreeing with both parties: Texas, and other states, have no choice but to use total population as the basis for drawing voting districts.[10]

In their separate concurring opinions, Justices Thomas and Alito targeted the approach urged by the United States. Justice Thomas pointed out that the Court has never formed a clear definition of “one person, one vote” and that the Constitution mandates no particular manner of redistricting for the states.[11] Furthermore, Justice Alito noted that since this case did not present the question of whether a state, like Texas, may base voting districts on something other than total population, that question must be decided if, or when, a state uses a system such as that advocated by the plaintiffs.[12]

This begs the question: who do elected officials represent? The eligible voters in the district or all of the people in the district, regardless of voter eligibility? While the Court unanimously agreed that “one person, one vote” remains the law of the land, Evenwel v. Abbott reveals a potential crack in the doctrine over the precise meaning of the phrase.

[1] Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962); Gray v. Sanders, 372 U.S. 368 (1963); Wesberry v. Sanders, 375 U.S. 1 (1964); Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964).

[2] 377 U.S. at 562.

[3] No. 14-940, 2016 WL 1278477, at *2 (U.S. Apr. 4, 2016).

[4] Evenwel, 2016 WL 1278477, at *2.

[5] Id. at *5.

[6] Id. at *2.

[7] Id. at *10-11, 20-21.

[8] Id. at *4.

[9] Id. at *5.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at *11 (Thomas, J., concurring).

[12] Id. at *22 (Alito, J., concurring).

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