The following op-ed has been published on the Colorado Statesmen website, and will also be pusblished in its July 17th print edition.
A group of recent court decisions has reignited the debate over how we draw legislative districts. In a case out of Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of Americans to create independent commissions that strip politicians of the power to gerrymander districts. In a Florida case in which Common Cause was a successful plaintiff, the state Supreme Court found the Florida legislature had drawn congressional district boundaries for political gain, and ordered them to redraw eight congressional districts within 100 days. In Alabama and Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered racially gerrymandered districts to be redrawn.
In addition to litigation, people are organizing grassroots efforts to fight gerrymandering. In states including Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and others, Americans are joining active campaigns to end gerrymandering. The people are tired of politicians manipulating elections by choosing their voters instead of allowing a fair and transparent process.
Last month, Mario Nicolais introduced Colorado Statesman readers to Evenwel v. Abbott, a Texas case questioning the precise meaning of “one person, one vote.” Because this case, which the U.S. Supreme Court will hear next year, has profound implications for fair, democratic representation in America’s state legislatures, it is important to identify the potential consequences and the political games being played here.
Every 10 years, the Census determines how many people live in the United States. We use those numbers to determine how many representatives in Congress, state legislatures, and local legislative bodies each community should get. If Community A and Community B have the same number of people, they should each get the same number of elected legislators to ensure their interests are fairly represented.
The plaintiffs in Evenwel seek to erase millions of our neighbors when states determine how many state legislators a community will get. They want to require that states count only voters, instead of all residents — a radical change that would make invisible in our democracy people under the age of 18, the thousands of non-citizen immigrants serving in our military, the elderly whose voter registration may have lapsed, and many others who live and work in our communities but are ineligible to vote. These individuals pay taxes, drive on the roads that city governments maintain, and attend the schools funded by state legislatures. Nonetheless, the Evenwel plaintiffs want to strip these individuals of representation, arguing that the people in urban districts who are ineligible to vote should have a weakened voice when petitioning their government, while rural districts should have their voices strengthened, even if their populations are smaller.
Ed Blum, a longtime political operative, has led the effort to fund this and other cases designed to strip certain communities of democratic representation. In his biggest Supreme Court victory, Blum organized and funded Shelby County v. Holder. This 5-4 decision from 2013 gutted the Voting Rights Act by disabling a key provision requiring jurisdictions with a long history of racial discrimination to pre-clear changes to their voting systems with the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court. The decision ended one of the most successful public policy initiatives in American history by judicial fiat. Now that a landmark historical protection of Americans’ right to vote has been successfully eliminated, Blum’s next target is fair democratic representation in our legislatures.
The supporters of the Evenwel lawsuit believe that only some people should be represented in America’s legislatures. They want the government to be accountable only to the interests of those privileged few. Common Cause believes that all individuals who live in our communities, even if they are underage or not registered to vote, should be represented in government.
Common Cause is joining a large and diverse team of allies who will submit amicus briefs in this case. We will make forceful arguments that America’s history and our values do not support making millions of our friends, family, and neighbors invisible in our democracy. Making sure that all communities receive the representation they deserve is a fundamental principle that Common Cause and our allies will fight for in Evenwel and beyond.