Changing ‘one person, one vote’ would make one big mess

Arturo Vargas
Arturo Vargas Rodney Choice/

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments next month in a case that challenges the tenet of “one person, one vote.”

With Evenwel v. Abbott, the court will revisit a 1964 decision that established the method used to divide state legislative districts in a manner that resulted in fair representation.

That decision 51 years ago, Reynolds v. Simms, directed states to uphold “one person, one vote” by dividing total population equally to create legislative districts. The new case brings into question whether states should count only eligible voters in determining the size of state legislative districts instead.

Changes in how our nation defines this principle could have a damaging impact in our democracy’s responsiveness to the Latino community. Counting only eligible voters and excluding youths and noncitizens – including those here legally – would ultimately grant greater political power to population groups that are older, wealthier and more suburban.

This case is fundamental for the nation’s second-largest population group, and not just because of the immigrant community. With a higher likelihood to live in urban areas, a younger median age – 27 for Latinos vs. 37 for all Americans – and a population that accounts for one of every four school-age youth, Latino access to fair representation would be in significant danger if the court redefined “one person, one vote.”

Analysis in an amicus brief with NALEO Educational Fund and other coalition groups found that approximately 55 percent of the Latino population would be excluded if only eligible voters were counted in districts, compared to only 21 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

The implications of this decision are set to be far-reaching for the Latino community and the nation.

One need only look at Los Angeles, a city where Latinos comprise nearly half – 48 percent – of all residents, to see how access to equal representation could be at risk. Of the nearly 2 million Latinos in Los Angeles, only 690,000, or 32 percent, of the population are of voting age.

Los Angeles mirrors the troubles many elected officials from urban areas would face if the new standard were applied nationwide. An overhaul of this tenet would make the already increasingly difficult job of elected officials, who are required to make decisions on behalf of all residents, nearly impossible.

Regardless of age or legal status, elected officials must provide a variety of constituency services to all residents. Access to these services and meaningful representation, especially in urban areas, could be in jeopardy if the court ruled to count only a portion of residents in their districts.

Implementation of a redistricting method that is based solely on the number of eligible voters would also be problematic from a data perspective.

Simply put, data to count only eligible voters in districts do not exist. The closest thing is the information gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau through the decennial count of the nation and the American Community Survey, which uses responses from 2 percent of the population to compile a representative sample of the nation.

By making our political system reliant on incomplete data and responsive to fewer Americans, not more, the only thing accomplished by changing our nation’s definition of “one person, one vote” would be one big mess.

The U.S. Supreme Court should not use this case as an opportunity to move our country backward 51 years, but instead use its ruling to cement the current approach used to uphold the tenet of “one person, one vote” into law.

Doing so would be the best way to ensure our nation has one democracy for all, instead of one democracy for the privileged few.

Arturo Vargas is the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, a nonprofit that facilitates Latino participation in the American political process.