High Court Backs Use of Total Population in State, School District Electoral Maps

By Mark Walsh — April 04, 2016 5 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday unanimously held that states and local jurisdictions, including school districts, may use total population to draw their electoral districts, rejecting an argument that the “one-person, one-vote” principle required them instead to draw lines based on voter population.

“As the Framers of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment comprehended, representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for six members of the court in Evenwel v. Abbott (Case No. 14-940). “Nonvoters have an important stake in many policy debates—children, their parents, even their grandparents, for example, have a stake in a strong public-education system—and in receiving constituent services, such as help navigating public-benefits bureaucracies.”

“By ensuring that each representative is subject to requests and suggestions from the same number of constituents, total-population apportionment promotes equitable and effective representation,” Ginsburg said.

The decision rejected a challenge brought by a group of Texas voters, backed by a conservative group, to the state Senate redistricting map after the 2010 Census that drew district lines based roughly equally on total population, including non-voters and even non-citizens.

The challengers said the state Senate districts “grossly malaportion” the citizen voting-age population, with the result being that there are voters or potential voters in some districts whose votes are worth as much as one-and-a-half times those in other districts, which violated the “one-person, one-vote” principle established by the high court in the landmark 1964 case of Reynolds v. Sims.

The method favored by the challengers would tend to boost the electoral power of rural voters and diminish that of urban areas. Thus, the case held implications for the representation of children’s interests in state legislatures. The principles also apply to elected school boards that have single-member voting districts.

The court was effectively presented with four possibilities in the case. One was a rule that the states and local jurisdictions may draw lines based on total population, as is the norm in most of the country. The second was what the challengers sought: a rule that voter population must be used in some circumstances. The third was advocated by Texas: that it was free to use either method. And the fourth was advanced by President Barack Obama’s administration: that the use of total population is constitutionally required.

Ginsburg’s opinion adopts the view that jurisdictions may use total population, and it rejects the Texas challengers’ view that voting population must sometimes be used. But the court declined to rule on Texas’ argument that it should have the option to choose either method.

“What constitutional history and our prior decisions strongly suggest, settled practice confirms,” Ginsburg said. “Adopting voter-eligible apportionment as constitutional command would upset a well-functioning approach to districting that all 50 States and countless local jurisdictions have followed for decades, even centuries.”

Her opinion was signed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

Concurring Views

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. both wrote separately.

Thomas wrote an opinion for himself, concurring in the outcome that states may use total population. But he asserted that “this court has never provided a sound basis for the one-person, one-vote principle.”

“The Constitution does not prescribe any one basis for apportionment within states,” Thomas said. “It instead leaves States significant leeway in apportioning their own districts to equalize total population, to equalize eligible voters, or to promote any other principle consistent with a republican form of government.”

He noted that the Texas challengers had some ammunition for defining the one-person, one-vote principle in terms of eligible voters in a 1970 Supreme Court decision known as Hadley v. Junior College District of Metropolitan Kansas City.

In Hadley, the court struck down a Missouri law that had allowed several K-12 school districts to band together to form such a junior college district serving all of them. The law provided that trustees of the junior college district be apportioned among the separate K-12 districts on the basis of “school enumeration,” meaning the number of school-aged residents of the district (defined as those between 6 and 20 years old).

Voters in the Kansas City, Mo., K-12 district sued. Their district accounted for 60 percent of the school-aged children in the overall junior college jurisdiction, but Kansas City voters could elect only half of the six trustees. So their votes for the larger junior college district were diluted compared with the votes coming from the five smaller K-12 districts, the challengers argued.

In Hadley, the Supreme Court sided with the challengers, holding that the Missouri law “results in a systematic discrimination against voters in the more populous school districts.”

In his concurrence on Monday, Thomas stressed that while a decision such as Hadley favored giving equal treatment to voters, other decisions of the court have favored total population.

“This lack of clarity in our redistricting cases has left states with little guidance about how their political institutions must be structured,” Thomas said.

Alito, in a concurrence joined in part by Thomas, agreed that Texas’ use of total population did not violate the one-person, one-vote principle, but he disagreed with Ginsburg’s view that the use of total population is supported by the Constitution’s formula for allocating seats in the House of Representatives, which is based on total population of the states.

In a lengthy concurrence citing Alexander Hamilton and other theorists of democracy, Alito said that in light of the history of the relevant provisions of Article I and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, “it is clear that the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives was based in substantial part on the distribution of political power among the states and not merely on some theory regarding the proper nature of representation.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.