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Supreme Court Upholds 'One Person, One' Vote Principle


A unanimous Supreme Court has upheld the way every state in the union draws its legislative districts so that they're equal in total population instead of the number of eligible voters. The decision rejected a challenge brought by conservative activists in Texas. They argued that the one person, one vote principle is meant to equalize the number of eligible voters, not the population, in each district. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The Supreme Court, in declaring the one person, one vote principle more than a half-century ago, did away with grossly unequal state legislative districts. But the justices never explicitly said who qualified to be counted in each district. Enter the Project on Fair Representation, the same conservative group that successfully challenged a key provision of a voting rights act in 2013.

This time, the group wanted state legislative districts redrawn to have equal numbers of voters, not equal total population. That would have left out children, foreigners living here legally and those living here illegally as well as American citizens who'd lost their right to vote after serving prison time. And it would have brought a massive redrawing of districts in many states, a redrawing that experts said would largely benefit Republicans and rural residents while at the same time disadvantaging Democrats and urban areas. Voting expert Nathaniel Persily has drawn legislative maps across the country.

NATHANIEL PERSILY: A ruling in their favor not only would have led to a diminishing of Latino representation in Texas, but it would have forced many jurisdictions throughout the country, maybe hundreds, to redraw their lines.

TOTENBERG: The Supreme Court, however, rejected the challenge's arguments. Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that the Constitution's framers made each state's total population the basis for allocating seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. That, she said, ensured that all people - not just voters - count in our system of government accountability.

And decades later, the Congress in enacting the 14th Amendment reaffirmed the idea of representational equality by explicitly rejecting a proposal for apportionment based on voter population instead of total population. It cannot be, she said, that the 14th Amendment mandates counting all residents but simultaneously forbids states from using the same system for their legislative apportionment. Because Texas and every other state in the nation now use total population as the metric for equalizing districts, she said, there's no need to decide whether an alternative system would be constitutional. That prompted Edward Blum, president of the group that brought today's case to suggest that this issue will not go away.

EDWARD BLUM: Perhaps another lawsuit after the next round of redistricting will compel the court to once and for all clarify where it stands.

TOTENBERG: But voting specialist Richard Hasen at UC Davis notes that today's ruling makes the current system a safe harbor for states. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say that Richard Hasen works at University of California, Davis. Professor Hasen works at University of California, Irvine.]

RICHARD HASEN: If you try to do something else, then you run the risk of significant litigation.

TOTENBERG: Though today's ruling was unanimous, two justices - Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito - wrote concurring opinions. Both suggested that a state is free if it wishes to use a different system for counting. And Thomas said that in his view, there is no constitutional basis whatsoever for the principle of one person, one vote. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 4, 2016 at 11:00 PM CDT
Richard Hasen is a professor at University of California, Irvine, not UC-Davis.
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.