The right to vote is a foundation of American democracy, along with freedom of speech and the press. When the Supreme Court speaks on the subject, or even just listens, it has an importance well beyond the seemingly minute legal details that the Justices can take up. On December 8 two voting rights cases came before the Court.
Voters are slotted into districts from which they choose their members of Congress and their state legislators. Although individual ballots are secret, today computers can tell us a lot about voting habits, and can redesign districts to shape the outcome of elections. Increasingly, elected officials know how to use this technology to choose their voters and assure their continuation in office.
One of the two cases before the Court was the oral argument in Evenwel v. Abbott, in which Texas citizens complain that the number of registered voters varies widely between voting districts. They want the Court to require equal registration in each voting district, even if that results in widely different populations represented. The second docket was Shapiro v. McManus, in which the Court unanimously decided that the challengers to a gerrymandered voting district in Maryland made out a case for a three-judge trial court.
Historically the establishment of voting districts was a state legislative matter, a political matter that received very little attention from the Court. As population moved and changed, often voting maps stayed the same, resulting in very large inequalities in representation. Then in Baker v. Carr in 1962, the Court declared that unequal districting could be justiciable, and two years later declared that fair voting districts must have closely equal population. Since then, redistricting carried out every 10 years has focused on population equality.
Evenwel argued that population may be equal, but there are 50% more voters registered in his Texas district than the number of voters in some other districts. Therefore he claimed that his vote has less weight than votes of those in the other districts. But is this a denial of equal protection under the Constitution?
History favors the present practice. The Constitution allocates congressional districts among the states in proportion to total population, not voter registration. Women and children were counted well before the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. The ignoble three-fifths compromise was based on the number of slaves, none of whom could vote. For the 60 years that we have had the need to equalize voting districts, population has been the measure. Almost every state follows the same model in drawing the voting maps for the state legislature as well.
The State of Texas argued for allowing states to continue to base districts on equalizing population. Counting voter registration, not population, would seem to exclude people who cannot vote from representation: immigrants who are not yet citizens, undocumented people, those who are less than 18 years old, as well as those who decline to vote for religious reasons. Philosophically, legislators are expected to represent and serve all people, not just registered voters.
More practically, voter registration changes materially in ways that population usually does not. Before a presidential election, registration rises. If those registered decline to vote in “off year” elections, state law may strike them from the polls. Moreover, our reapportionment is based on the national decennial census which does not try to document voter registration, usually purely a matter of state law.
What appears clear is that Evenwel’s proposition, if adopted, would significantly shift voting power from urban to rural areas. So there is much riding on the Court’s decision, which is expected in June 2016.
Shapiro presents a seemingly narrow question but has the Court watchers sifting the tea leaves for some hint that the gerrymander problem may be seriously addressed in the future.
In a district that is gerrymandered to favor one party, voters of the other party may as well stay home. They cannot hope to alter the result in an election. In such districts, important decisions are made in the primary, but only the primary of the favored party. In most states a voter can take part only in the primary of the party in which he is registered.
An obvious inconsistency in the Court’s jurisprudence is the exacting attention to equalizing the population of districts, while allowing gerrymandered districts in which disfavored voters need not even go to the polls. It is estimated that 90% of congressional districts are “safe” seats in which one party has control; how many of these districts are intentionally gerrymandered is less clear, but it is surely an important number.
Federal law grants a person challenging the constitutionality of a voting district the right to a three-judge district court for trial. In this case individuals challenged their district on grounds that it was formed from two separate areas, linked by a “ribbon” and created solely to disenfranchise the voters in the smaller half of the barbell shape.
A single judge of the United States District Court for Maryland decided that the plaintiffs did not have a claim sufficient to go to trial, based on an unbroken line of rulings of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts that district maps — except in cases of racial discrimination — are non-justiciable. Reasoning that the plaintiffs had not shown a claim sufficient to even get to a trial, the single judge rejected the claim for a three-judge court and dismissed their case.
The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case. Justice Antonin Scalia, usually in the vanguard in cases dismissing gerrymander claims, wrote the brief opinion ruling that the plaintiff voters’ claim against the barbell district could not be dismissed as “insubstantial.”
Alone, that ruling might itself be insubstantial. But Scalia chose to find support in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurring opinion in Vieth v. Jubelier in 2004. That case is the leading modern decision that election districts are political and non-justiciable.
In concurring with that decision, Justice Kennedy stated: “I would not foreclose all possibility of judicial relief [in a future case] if some limited and precise rationale were found to correct an established violation of the Constitution …” Justice Scalia wrote the opinion of the Court in Vieth, and included an extensive critique chiding Justice Kennedy’s “never say never approach.” It seems that “never” may have arrived.
So should we hope that Justices Scalia and Kennedy have now discovered that some gerrymanders are “justiciable” and will join with the more liberal wing of the Court to grant voters relief in Shapiro or future cases? Stay tuned for more words from the Court.
Note: The author is chair of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, one of the nonprofit groups participating in briefs before the Supreme Court in these two cases.