One Person, One Vote: Fair Voting in an Unfair System

In a decision by The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), states will not be required to redesign their voting districts. The legal challenge put forward in Evenwel v. Abbott argued that the state government should be required to draw districts so that they contain a roughly equal number of eligible voters, a change from the current practice where districts a drawn to contain an equal number of people, regardless of their eligibility to vote.

The people behind this challenge are from a rural area in Texas, which owing to demographics, contains relatively more eligible voters per district than more urban districts. In an article by The Atlantic, factors such as illegal immigration, disenfranchised ex-convicts, and a higher proportion of children, are listed as causes for the disparity in the proportion of eligible voters compared to population.

A simple example will illustrate how this works. If District A is largely populated by small families and retired people, we could see a situation where 70% of people in this district are eligible to vote. If this district contains 100 000 people, then we would expect that this district would have 70 000 eligible voters.

District B contains large families, few retired people, and immigrants who are ineligible to vote. It also contains 100 000 people, but since only 50% of the residents are eligible to vote, there are only 50 000 eligible voters in this district.

The argument of Evenwel is that when we live in a system where everyone’s vote is supposed to count for the same as everyone else’s vote, it is unfair to select representatives based on total population when this means that the amount of voters needed to elect a single representative can vary substantially.

This argument has prima facie plausibility, and it accords with other plausible positions regarding voting equality. For instance, with few exceptions, most people believe that it would be wrong to give parents extra votes for each child they have. Nor would we accept a policy which gave the caregivers of the mentally disabled an extra vote for each person under their care.

What is more, the reasons presented against Evenwel’s argument aren’t exactly convincing. In both The Atlantic and The New York Times the writers cite the motivations behind Evenwel’s legal challenge as the (or a major) reason why we should reject eligible voter districting. The groups behind Evenwel are typically right-wing conservative groups who, according to The New York Times recognize that voter suppression is ‘good’ for conservatives, that is, conservatives are more likely to be elected as voter turnout drops.

However, even if Evenwel’s challenge is just another attempt to advantage conservatives, the mere fact that this change would be to the advantage of conservatives and to the disadvantage of liberals is not, by itself, a reason against redrawing voting districts around eligible voters. If changing how districts are drawn is the right thing to do, then whether it is to my advantage simply doesn’t matter.

Now, the SCOTUS decision is itself a limited decision. All it decided is that the states cannot be forced to redraw voting districts, but it left open the possibility that the states could change their laws without being in violation of the Constitution as well.

And although there is prima facie plausibility to Evenwel’s proposal, it is questionable whether a change as minimal as the one proposed would have any substantial benefit to the cause of democracy in the United States. Put bluntly, the American electoral system is so flawed that it is unlikely for the the proposal to have any positive benefits.

Let’s start with the House of Representatives as an example. In 2014, just over 75 million people voted for one of the two major parties. Of these 75 million, about 40 million voted for the Republicans and 35 million voted for the Democrats, or 53% for the Republicans and 47% for the Democrats. However, when converted into a seat count, the Republicans received 57% of the seats and the Democrats 43%.

If Evenwel’s primary concern was to ensure that the popular vote more closely aligned with the representative count on either side of the aisle, then they would need to sue for many other changes to ensure that one vote counts for one vote. They should be calling for an end to gerrymandered congressional districts, or for the overhaul of the first-past-the-post voting system altogether (which unrealistically favours a two-party system).

They should be against an electoral college system which makes it possible for a candidate to win the popular vote yet not become president. They should be concerned that voter turnout is abysmally low, just 36.4% in the 2014 congressional election. And most of all, they should be against Republican attempts to disenfranchise African Americans, young people, and the poor through restrictive voting policies which are designed to prevent nearly non-existent voter fraud.

We are right to be relieved with the SCOTUS decision, but we also need to recognize that there are much greater issues for American democracy than changing how we define ‘one person, one vote’.

Works Cited:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/04/evenwel-ruling-supreme-court/470280/