Redefining one person, one vote would redefine our democracy

Should 38 percent of California’s population be excluded from political representation? This question is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, as it considers how states should draw their legislative districts. When the answer is handed down next year, it will have huge consequences for the political map of the nation and California.

In a big surprise, the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear Evenwel v. Abbott, a Texas case that could fundamentally change the one person, one vote principle established by the U.S. Supreme Court more than 50 years ago.

Since 1964, states have utilized U.S. Census Bureau counts of their entire population to draw equally populated voting districts for fair legislative representation. For the first time, the Supreme Court will revisit this standard and consider whether voting districts should be drawn up based only on the total number of eligible voters, rather than on their total population.

Plaintiffs in the case claim their votes are diluted because they reside in state districts that have higher proportions of eligible voters compared with districts that have lower proportions of those eligible to vote.

The proportion of eligible voters compared with the total population in voting districts varies greatly across the country and here in California.

But elected officials are supposed to represent the interests of all the people in their district, not just those who can vote.

According to analysis of census data by the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, counting only eligible voters would mean that nearly a third of the U.S. population and nearly 40 percent of California’s residents would lose legislative representation.

Over the past week, analysts have noted that if the U.S. Supreme Court rules the current standard should be redefined to eligible voters only, then some districts would be disproportionately impacted more than others. Political strength would shift from urban areas, which have large numbers of noncitizens and children, and gravitate toward older, whiter suburban and rural areas, a shift likely to benefit the Republican Party.

But let’s be clear. The big losers are those who would no longer be represented in a critical component of our democratic system, an issue that goes far beyond party affiliation.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision about who gets counted in legislative redistricting has far-reaching consequences in terms of race and ethnicity, disproportionally favoring whites and negatively impacting Latinos and Asian American populations. Latinos make up 57 percent of those in California who would lose representation. Only 20 percent of the state’s ineligible voters are white, non-Hispanics. And Latinos are over half the population of California’s children under age 18.

The political power of Latinos in state districts would be reduced, despite the fact that Latinos would still have the same total population. This would mean the California Legislature – which is already not representative of the makeup of the state’s population – would likely become even less diverse. Latinos comprise 39 percent of the state’s total population, surpassing the white percentage of the state’s population just this past year. But they still hold a far smaller proportion of Assembly and Senate seats.

How we draw district lines matters. It matters for Latino political representation, but also for the strength of our democracy.

What would redefining the one person, one vote standard mean for our democratic principles? Would it mean that representatives need not respond to or seek out the opinion of those who are not counted in the drawing of their districts?

If those who can’t vote don’t count, then perhaps some elected officials might also think they don’t need to represent those who are eligible but choose not to vote or maybe those who don’t vote for them? This could be a slippery slope.

This issue isn’t just about where we draw the lines in terms of geography. It’s also about where we draw the lines in how we define our democracy.

Mindy Romero is the director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.