WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday over how Americans are sorted into state legislative districts. How the court rules next year on the case could profoundly change the makeup of statehouses across the country.
Attorneys representing two Texans before the high court will ask the question: When legislative seats are distributed by the legal dictum, “one person, one vote,” who counts as a person? The entire population, including resident non-citizens, felons and children? Or only eligible voters?
The suit’s two plaintiffs, Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger, charge they have reduced clout as voters in their state Senate districts. Evenwel is one of about 584,000 voters in her mostly rural district, while a neighboring, mostly urban district has just 372,000 eligible voters. Each district has approximately the same number of residents.
Currently, every person counted by the census is considered when lawmakers draw most state and federal legislative lines. Congressional districts are based on total population as required in the U.S. Constitution. But basing statehouse lines on population is unconstitutional, the plaintiffs charge; they argue voters in districts with a high number of ineligible voters have outsized political influence.
While the case, Evenwel v. Abbott, focuses on state Senate districts, political implications of the high court’s ruling are expected to spill over into the drawing of federal district lines and into to the building across the street from the court, the U.S. Capitol.
Political experts project that a ruling in favor of the Texans suing the state would translate into a power shift from urban, Democratic centers like Dallas and Houston to the suburbs and rural regions.
And it would free states to set their own standards for which of their residents should be counted when drawing political maps, which is why so many national organizations are engaged in public debate ahead of the oral arguments. Those state legislatures, however they are elected, ultimately draw future political maps for themselves and for their state delegations to Congress.
The current system prescribes that at the beginning of every decade, the U.S. government takes a census of every person living in the country. Every person is counted, regardless of whether each is a U.S. citizen or not.
Members of the Texas Senate represent an average of 811,147 constituents. That includes every person counted in the most recent U.S. Census and does not take into consideration whether each individual is eligible to vote. Thousands of non-citizens, felons and children are included in the count, even though they are ineligible to vote.
Texas Solicitor General Scott A. Keller will defend that precedent on behalf of the state of Texas on Tuesday.
A conservative advocacy group called Project on Fair Representation backed the lawsuit.
“This case presents the court with the opportunity to restore the important principle of one person, one vote to the citizens of Texas and elsewhere,” the organization’s leader, Ed Blum, said in a statement earlier this year, according to The Washington Post.
The consensus among conservatives and liberals monitoring the case is that if the plaintiffs win, safely Democratic urban seats will become endangered if those districts are forced to take in more eligible voters in outlying conservative suburbs and rural regions.
And so Democrats and liberals are lining up against the measure.
“It is important because, although the Evenwel plaintiffs will deny it, they are challenging a fundamental principle of republican government and that is the principle that in a representative government, there should be equal representation to equal numbers of people,” attorney Emmet Bondurant said on a conference call last week.
Bondurant is an lawyer for Common Cause, a group led and backed by several high-profile liberals. Other groups are rallying to the cause, including Latino organizations and the Democratic National Committee.
Hours before the arguments, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, will participate in a Congressional Hispanic Caucus news conference outside the Supreme Court.
Political experts began considering the impact of the court ruling when the Supreme Court announced in May its intention to take up the case.
Looking across the country, an unfavorable ruling to the Democrats would exacerbate the party’s woes.
By a large measure, Republican-controlled state legislatures drew the current U.S. House district lines after the 2010 wave that swept Republicans into statehouses across the country. Those legislators redrew state and federal legislative lines to protect their Republican majorities.
Democrats realize the hole they are in and are focusing resources redistricting in 2021. An Evenwel decision that strengthens Republicans and weakens Democrats would reverberate through Congress as new state legislators draw new federal maps for their state delegations to Congress.
The current maps are stacked so much in favor of Republicans that most Democratic members and operatives are resigned to the notion they have no shot at winning control of more statehouses, and in turn, the U.S. House, until 2022, after the next census.
Democrats are banking on demographic shifts among Latino and younger voters in the coming years to propel their party into power. Moving political clout to older, more rural and Republican voters would make that climb all the more difficult.
The court is expected to rule in 2016.
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.