The U.S. Supreme Court has begun hearing arguments on a case that could define whether immigrants and noncitizens count politically.
The case, known as Evenwel v Abbott, is re-examining the constitutional principle of “one person, one vote.” This doctrine was upheld by a 1964 ruling that stipulated voting districts should be roughly equal in population size. But the high court never specified whether noncitizens should be counted in each district’s population.
Those challenging the tenet of one person, one vote argue that people who are not allowed to vote should not be included when lawmakers determine the shape and size of a congressional district. Defenders of the current system argue that everybody counts, and even those who aren’t allowed to vote have the right to representation and must be taken into account when determining districts.
The challenge was brought by Texan plaintiffs Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger, who are represented by a conservative legal defense foundation known as the Project on Fair Representation. The advocacy group has been involved in previous cases challenging the Voting Rights Act and university quotas for minority students.
In Evenwel v Abbott the plaintiffs argue that district populations should be measured by counting only eligible or registered voters. They claim that drawing district lines based on total population is unfair because districts with fewer eligible voters will have disproportionate representation.
If the Supreme Court agrees, it would redraw electoral maps and conceivably shift power from urban areas, which tend to have higher immigrant and minority populations, to rural districts that tend to be more white, conservative and older. The case focuses specifically on district lines in Texas, but the ruling could set a nationwide precedent.
“This is a big deal,” Maria Teresa Kumar, founding president of the pro-immigration group Voto Latino, told Fusion. “This is completely whitewashing a whole group of people; children, processed ex-cons… and a large majority of folks that are not citizens.”
Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation, says the issue of one person, one vote is not so cut-and-dried. “Is the ‘person’ someone who is a noncitizen? Is it someone who is incarcerated in a prison? Someone in a mental institution? Is it a two-year-old child? None of these have been clarified,” Blum explained. “We argue that the purpose of ‘one person, one vote’ was to protect the equality of voters, not the representation equality of those individuals or populations I just highlighted.”
But that argument has drawn much criticism from Democrats whose districts would be affected. “This case represents a direct attack on our constituents,” Democrat State Senator from El Paso Jose R. Rodriguez told The Texas Tribune. “The implications could not be larger for minority voting rights and for Texas as a whole.”
The debate has also drawn attention from the Bernie Sanders campaign, which put out a statement against this type of redistricting. “According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Latinos are the nation’s youngest ethnic group. As a result, areas with large Latino populations will be adversely impacted when it comes to representation in state legislatures,” said Sanders’ Latino outreach director Arturo Carmona.
The Supreme Court justices also seem divided on the definition of one person, one vote.
“There’s a voting interest, but there’s also a representation interest,” said Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, referring to elected officials responsibility to represent everyone in their districts, not just those who voted for them.
Matt Barreto, a professor of Political Science and Chicano Studies at UCLA, said that a ruling in the plaintiff’s favor would benefit states with older populations and fewer non-citizens. “In the long run, it would affect the number of congressional representatives every state has,” he said.
“You could even be a legal resident on a work visa or a green card and you still wouldn’t count towards the census,” Barreto explained. “It’s a very conservative and unfounded interpretation of how we view our districts.”
Barreto thinks the Plaintiff’s argument “goes against the very heart of the Constitution” by contradicting the 14th Amendment. He hopes the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule next June, sets the record straight once and for all.
“They can take up the case so they can issue a ruling and it doesn’t continue lingering in the circuit courts,” Barreto said.
Update December 16, 2015: Voto Latino president Maria Teresa Kumar says she used the word “former felons” not “ex-cons.”