by Gabrielle Jorgensen
On December 3, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for Evenwel v. Abbott, a case whose outcome could redefine the concept of “one person, one vote” in the United States. A catchphrase of contemporary American democracy, “one person, one vote” was first articulated by the Warren Court in the 1964 case Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533. The consequential ruling mandated for the first time that legislative districts be drawn to encompass roughly equal populations, effectively eliminating any state claims to territorially-based district apportionment. Reynolds also came close to addressing gerrymandering, as Chief Justice Warren warned of the dangers that arise when district boundaries are deliberately drawn to benefit specific interests.
Since Reynolds, public perception of “one person, one vote” has generally taken the phrase literally: legislative districts are drawn to represent roughly equal populations, regardless of who in the district is eligible to vote. In the opinion, however, Chief Justice Warren refrains from explicitly defining exactly who constitutes a “person.” Fifty years later, petitioners in Evenwel v. Abbott will argue that “person” may actually mean “voter,” and that any other standard dilutes the representation of the electorate relative to those who are not enfranchised.
Should the Roberts Court rule in favor of Evenwel, the resulting effect would be akin to a policy change. States are not currently required to differentiate between “persons” and “voters” in their legislative apportionment in order to meet the requirement posed by Reynolds. A decision for Evenwel will likely compel states to draw districts that equalize voter populations, lest a state risk the political dilution of its voting citizens. Such a decision would bear extraordinary consequences in states with high non-citizen populations, such as California, Texas, and New Jersey. Despite an understanding that non-citizen residents are entitled to constitutional protections, this would effectively strip the disenfranchised of equal representation. Whether the provisions of Reynolds require equal representation or simply equal voting rights is up for interpretation by the Roberts Court.
The principle of “one person, one vote” is hardly universal and has been applied only sporadically around the world. Within international democratic voting bodies, the inconsistency is especially telling. For example, the U.N. General Assembly, the institution most akin to a “world parliament,” fails to espouse the principle in favor of a “one country, one vote” policy. In the same way that votes for the United States Senate disproportionately favor residents of less populated states, votes in the General Assembly are weighted more heavily the smaller the nation. In the U.N. Security Council, votes are concentrated even further: the five permanent members of the UNSC (France, the United Kingdom, the U.S., Russia, and China) are the only members of the 15-seat council that enjoy veto power, but only two are in the top five most populous nations.
When “one person, one vote” breaks down at any level of government, there are vast policy implications. So-called “equitable” voting systems such as the UNGA limit their own potential for policy impact by disincentivizing large, resource-rich countries from participating in the policymaking process. In the opposite case, where incorrectly weighted voting systems allot disproportionate voting weights to powerful nations, the underrepresented nations are cut out of the decision-making. The same could be true for the U.S. should the outcome of Evenwel create an imbalanced weighted voting system in which the voices of the disenfranchised are lost in Congress. To ignore non-citizens, children, felons, and the otherwise disenfranchised is to dehumanize them; if they are not counted as “persons” in federal districting, their interests will gradually fade from the political agendas of their representatives. Thus any decision that fails to preserve the concept of “one person, one vote” could fundamentally undermine American democracy.
Gabrielle Jorgensen is a 2016 MPP candidate at the University of Virginia Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. She serves as the Co-Editor in Chief of the Virginia Policy Review.