Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that questioned whether everyone in a state’s congressional district has a right to representation, or if only eligible voters in that district do. Following the civil rights struggle for equal representation, and up until now, the principle of “one person one vote” has been understood to mean everyone in a district—including children and immigrants –is entitled to the representation by that district’s elected officials. Districts are thus determined on the basis of population, with the goal being roughly equal numbers of people within each district.
The challengers in Evenwel v. Abbott question that premise and argue that instead, only eligible voters should count when creating voting districts. This raises important questions about what kind of democracy we want to be: one that represents all people equally, or only those who register to vote (keeping in mind that huge percentages of citizens never register to vote). It is antithetical to our goal of creating a more welcoming United States to tell residents of a district, including children, immigrants who are here legally, aspiring Americans, and others that elected officials do not represent them. If we value the contributions of those who are not eligible to vote in our schools, colleges and universities, our homes and our workplaces, we cannot discount them when it comes time to be represented in our State Houses.
Constitutionally, the challengers’ argument is suspect. Article one requires representatives to be divided among states “according to their respective numbers,” or in other words, by population. Historically, those who were not eligible to vote--women, children, non-citizens – still counted. Even slaves counted, though only as three-fifths of free persons.
Practically, too, the proposal to count only eligible voters falls short. New eligible voters come into the system every day—whether by turning 18 or becoming naturalized citizens. The census is taken only every 10 years—leaving a gap in when new eligible voters would actually be counted.
Practicalities aside, if our democratic institutions are to reflect our values, our representatives must know that they represent all the people. Anything less is not a democracy as Americans know it.