This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an obscure redistricting challenge to Texas Senate districts that, frankly, most court watchers have not paid much attention to. The case, Evenwel v. Abbott, had been dismissed at the trial court level.
If the Supreme Court revives this case, it has the potential to turn what’s left of the Voting Rights Act on its ear, and devastate minority representation in Texas.
Here’s how: currently, districts (Congressional, state House, state Senate, city council, etc.) are drawn based on total population. The plaintiffs in Evenwel want those districts to be drawn based only on citizen voting age population. Under their scenario, people under the age of 18 don’t exist, and non-citizens don’t exist. From a public policy standpoint, this flies in the face of reality, and of why governments exist and who governments serve. Children count; governments serve them in many ways, from health care to public education. And even non-citizens count – can you imagine firefighters not bothering to put out a house fire because an immigrant lives in the house? Governments serve everybody living within its geographic boundaries in some way, and they collect taxes from everybody living within those boundaries in some way – not just those who are citizens of voting age.
Politically, the case has potential serious ramifications for the current make-up of the Senate, and if the plaintiffs prevailed, it would almost certainly mean fewer minority Senators holding office. The current map was drawn using total population. Under the plaintiff’s scheme, the state would be required to draw maps using only citizen voting age population, not total population. Thrown out of the count would be everybody under the age of 18, and everybody who isn’t a citizen.
The Hispanic population in Texas is very young (in fact, Texas in general is very young – more than 25% of Texans are children). And Texas had an estimated 1.7 million non-citizen residents as of 2010. These residents are counted in the census (as they should be, even redistricting aside, since the funding for many federal programs depends on it). These residents also live disproportionately in the Senate districts of current minority Senators and/or Senators of minority voters’ choice – mostly in urban and South Texas.
If these children and non-citizens suddenly didn’t count toward the totals in map-drawing, the districts of most if not all of the racial minorities currently in the Texas Senate would necessarily become much larger, since the one man-one vote principle dictates that districts be roughly the same population. Since there are only so many minority Texans to go around, plus other Texans who ally themselves with minorities, it is entirely possible that these larger districts would elect fewer minority Senators, or Senators of minority Texans’ choice regardless of the Senator’s ethnicity. Senator Sylvia Garcia’s urban and Hispanic-heavy Houston district, for example, was drawn based on its total population of 812,881 people, but only contains 383,985 citizens of voting age. Meanwhile, quick-and-dirty math dictates that the new ideal citizen age voting population of any Senate district would be 522,508. Her district would have to be re-drawn to be significantly larger if the plaintiffs prevailed. While other districts’ mileage may vary, this scenario would be the rule, not the exception, in other Senate districts currently holding a significant minority population.
If the plaintiffs prevailed, the net result would be less minority representation, and presumably less Democratic representation, since all current Senate officeholders who represent a definitive minority population are Democrats, and with the exception of Senators Watson and Whitmire, are themselves racial minorities.
The bottom line is that if the plaintiffs prevail, it’s devastating news for minorities, Democrats, and progressives. Which is one key reason why conservative organizations support the lawsuit.
The good news: just because the Supreme Court opted to hear this case doesn’t mean the plaintiffs will prevail. Accepting a case only requires that four justices want it. But for a plaintiff to win a case requires that five justices agree with the plaintiff’s argument.
As is usual in voting rights and redistricting litigation, all eyes will be on Justice Kennedy – the perennial swing vote on such matters. The court will take up the case in its next session, which begins in October. Keep your seat belts fastened.