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‘1 person, 1 vote’ case divides US Supreme Court

December 8, 2015

A divided U.S. Supreme Court grappled with the meaning of the “one person, one vote” principle, hearing arguments in a case that might transform the way legislative maps are drawn and reduce Hispanic clout in elections.

The court is weighing whether states and local governments can continue their decades-long practice of using total population as the basis for drawing equal-sized voting districts. Two Texas voters say the measure should instead be eligible voters, an approach that would reduce representation for areas with lots of children and non-citizens.

The hour-long session didn’t give a clear indication how the court will rule. The justice who often serves as the court’s pivot, Anthony Kennedy, suggested he was conflicted.

At one point, Kennedy sought out a middle ground, asking a Texas state lawyer, “Why can’t you use both?” Kennedy quickly backed away from that suggestion after a Texas state lawyer told him that approach would often prove impossible.

The case touches on a fundamental question about representative democracy, asking whether lawmakers serve on behalf of everyone in their district or only those eligible to cast ballots. The issue has taken on greater importance as the share of non-citizens in the U.S. has grown. It has risen from 2 percent in 1970 to 7 percent in 2013, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

The Texas case directly affects only state redistricting, though it has the potential to influence congressional maps as well. The 14th Amendment requires the 435 U.S. House seats to be apportioned among the states on the basis of total population, but it doesn’t specify what rules apply to line-drawing within the states.

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