Supreme Court Sides With States On Redistricting

'One-person, one-vote' principle upheld in drawing legislative districts

The Supreme Court's ruling essentially maintains the status quo nationwide, as almost all states use total population to redraw their state districts based on the “one-person, one-vote” principle. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that states can draw state legislative districts based on total population, rejecting a challenge that would require districts to be equalized by another criteria, such as registered voters.  

The ruling essentially maintains the status quo nationwide, as almost all states use total population to redraw their state districts based on the “one-person, one-vote” principle.  

The justices ruled, however, and did not finally resolve whether states could choose to use a different metric to draw districts in the future.  

A shift in current redistricting practices would have disproportionately hurt Democrats, and make elections more challenging for them in states with high numbers of immigrants.  

States and the Obama administration argued it would be onerous on states in part because data is not collected on registered voters to the same detail as the census collects data on people.  

For decades, there wouldn’t have been much difference between the two measurements. But with an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the United States, there can be wide disparities between districts.  

The language of the decision also appears to further solidify that congressional districts will remain drawn by counting everyone in their borders as a “person,” which is the basis in the Constitution for deciding how many congressional districts each state gets.  

While the Texas case involves districts for the state legislature, a broader ruling — depending on how it would have been written — could have applied to House districts or be used to argue that the same new standard should apply to Congress as well, legal experts said.  

The petitioners, two Texas voters, argued the state’s reliance on total population weakened the power of their votes compared to voters in districts with high numbers of non-voters such as immigrants. They argued that the longstanding one-person, one-vote standard requires voters be equally distributed in districts so that each person’s vote carries the same weight, not so that all people be equally distributed in districts so each lawmaker represents an equal number of people.  

The justices rejected the challenge in part because a different metric would clash with the Constitution’s instruction to draw congressional districts using total population. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion in which all eight justices concurred, at least in part.  

“It cannot be, we reason, that the Fourteenth Amendment calls for the apportionment of congressional districts based on total population, but simultaneously forbids states from apportioning their own legislative districts the same way,” Ginsburg said in a statement from the bench Monday.  

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. concurred in the judgment but wrote separately to voice his disagreement with the majority opinion’s reliance on the Constitution’s formula for allocating congressional seats.  

The dominant reason the Constitution allocates House seats based on inhabitants was for allocation of political power among the states — not because it said whether the equal representation should go to all people, only citizens, or only eligible voters.  

The allocation of congressional representation “plainly violates one person, one vote,” Alito wrote. “This is obviously true with respect to the Senate: Although all states have equal representation in the Senate, the most populous state (California) has 66 times has many people as the least populous (Wyoming).”  

“And even the allocation of House seats does not comport with one person, one vote,” Alito said. “Every state is entitled to at least one seat in the House, even if the state’s population is lower than the average population of House districts nationwide.”  

Today, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming fall in that category, Alito said.  

“If one person, one vote applied to allocation of House seats among states, I very much doubt the court would uphold a plan where one representative represents fewer than 570,000 people in Wyoming but nearly a million people in next door Montana.”  

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the decision "reflects the reality that all Americans, including individuals who cannot vote — such as children and noncitizens — deserve to be represented in our democracy too.”  

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.