December 10, 2015

Supreme Court could reshape voting districts, with big impact on Hispanics


The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments recently in a Texas case that challenges the way nearly every U.S. voting district – from school boards to Congress – is drawn. The case asks the court to specify what the word “person” means in its “one person, one vote” rule. The outcome of the case could have major impacts on Hispanic voting strength and representation from coast to coast.

Ever since a series of landmark rulings in the 1960s, districts have been drawn “as nearly of equal population as is practicable.” (As Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the majority in Reynolds v. Sims, “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.”) The high court didn’t directly say what “equal population” meant, but states and localities have almost invariably used total population figures. And that population is determined by the decennial census.

However, the appellants in the Texas case, Evenwel v. Abbott, argue that districts instead should be drawn to have equal numbers of eligible voters. (The case involves redistricting within states, not reapportioning congressional seats among states.)

FT_15.12.15_2014ACS_scatterThe distinction between residents and voters is a big one, because in many states, districts with nearly equal total populations can have dramatically different numbers of eligible voters (that is, U.S. citizens ages 18 and older).

We approximated the disparity using 2014 demographic data for all 435 U.S. House districts from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Eligible voters ranged from 81.2% of the population (Florida’s 11th District, located north of the Tampa Bay area) to 43.2% (California’s 40th District, comprising East Los Angeles and adjacent communities). California’s 40th, in fact, has barely half as many voting-age citizens (308,347) as Oregon’s 4th District (604,980, the most of any district in a multi-district state).

As the map (above) and chart (right) might suggest, there’s a strong negative correlation between share of eligible voters and share of Hispanic population. Of the 25 districts with the highest Hispanic population shares, 18 also are among the 25 districts with the lowest eligible-voter share. This is because so many Hispanics aren’t eligible to vote, either because they’re not U.S. citizens or because they’re younger than 18. By our calculations, only about 46% of the nation’s more than 55 million Hispanics are eligible to vote.

There also are clear partisan differences between districts with high and low shares of eligible voters. Of the 33 districts where voting-age citizens make up less than 60% of the population, 28 are held by Democrats; Democrats represent 18 of the lowest-ranking 20. On the other end, Republicans represent 35 of the 47 districts where 77% or more of the population are voting-age citizens, and 17 of the highest 20.

What would happen if the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of the Texas appellants (who, it should be noted, already have lost at the district-court level) is unknown. One possibility is that districts with relatively few eligible voters would be redrawn to include more of them – which could mean bringing more whites and Republicans into what are now largely Hispanic, Democratic-voting districts, or combining such districts to bring up the eligible-voter population. And that, in turn, could affect Hispanic representation in the House, which has risen from five in 1973 to 17 in 1993 and 28 in 2013.

Nearly Half or More of U.S. Hispanic and Asian Populations Not Eligible to VoteThis could also have an outsize impact on the representation of Asian Americans – just 55% of the more than 16 million Asians in the U.S. are adult citizens. By comparison, large majorities of whites (79%) and blacks (71%) are citizens of legal voting age. (Asian American representation in the House has risen from two in 1973 to four in 1993 and 10 in 2013.)

All of this should be taken as illustrative rather than definitive. There are factors beyond age and U.S. citizenship that affect eligibility, such as residency rules, imprisonment, prior felony convictions and mental incompetency; our data don’t address those other factors. In addition, Americans living overseas may be eligible to vote but aren’t covered by the American Community Survey. (Two political scientists, Samuel Popkin and Michael McDonald, addressed those issues in an influential 2001 paper on turnout rates.)

Most important, while the American Community Survey asks about immigration and U.S. citizenship status, the decennial census does not. And because the decennial census counts everyone (which the ACS, being a sample-based survey, does not), it has been the only source of data for drawing district lines (a point addressed at length in an amicus brief filed by several political scientists). That means that if the Supreme Court requires districts to be drawn with equal numbers of eligible voters, it may also have to decide just how those eligible-voter numbers are to be determined.

Note: This post was originally published on June 3 and has been updated. 

Topics: Supreme Court, Hispanic/Latino Vote, Voter Demographics

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Wanderer _2 years ago

    The image that comes to mind is a congressional district made up of a single plantation worked by illegal immigrant migrant workers where only the plantation owners can vote. At the very least congressional districts should require that a minimum proportion of the people in a district be eligible voters.

  2. LJ2 years ago

    Doesn’t this also mean that convicted felons, who have no voting eligibility, and typically return to urban areas after their sentences are complete will no longer be counted as people, and cause underrepresentation of areas with the largest domestic issues.

    But then, apartheid does seem to be growing as a conservative dream.

  3. Bellerose2 years ago

    Katie, the problem is that you aren’t advocating for legal citizens to be counted, you’re advocating for only legal citizens who can vote to be counted. There’s an important distinction.

  4. Richard Tebaldi2 years ago

    The 2000 people poled on Illegal immigration must have been too small! Not many people with that I know are for allowing illegals to enter the Country. It first shows that our laws should be broken and one could easily be rewarded for this. I believe voter registration should include a picture I.D. card also. Frankly, all the political secrecy I have witnessed over the last 20 or so years is disturbing. Secrecy will bring our Country down. I am aware that our legislators have held back information from the voting public, but it is now out of control. PAC (P) and SUPER-PAC (SP)money should be outlawed. It’s become obvious that favors are being given to (B.B.) to get (P) & (SP) dollars, but it costs the American taxpayer money. Big Business is using excess profits from sales to taxpayers to “donate” to (P) & (SP) and gain favorable rulings from both R’s and D’s. It’s disgusting how a pro taxpayer bill gets watered down to useless while Big Business (B.B.) gets to write it’s own ticket, as does our Congress. With all the screw-ups by our legislators, with all the cheaters that Sigtarp is going after, it is apparent that white collar crime in America PAYS WELL in this country, due to legislation favors.

  5. Katie2 years ago

    This is a topic that has infuriated me for years. As a resident of the great state of Texas and a citizen of these United States of America – We have been taking such a hit financially because of all the illegals flooding our southern border at the invitation of our POTUS’s and the redrawing of districts to include illegals for representation is just another nail in the coffin of our sovereign nation! The liberals are just pandering for a permanent majority to keep them in office in D.C. and it Should be unconstitutional. If the Supreme Court allows illegals to be counted the same as legal citizens – it will mean NOTHING to be a citizen of the U.S.A.!!

    1. Lance Fallin (The Singu’Lancity)2 years ago

      More people have been DEPORTED under the Obama Administration than under the previous Bush Administration.

  6. Rich2 years ago

    It is an interesting case . For me, the first thing is to look at the source of the complaint and what those who are making it hope to accomplish. The reality is, that it once again conservative groups doing what they can to limit the impact of people who are not a part of their perceived base. Whether it’s a campaign against non existent voter fraud, dirty tricks to limit the turnout in minority districts, or the simple limitation of suffrage the plan is always the same; Limit or dilute agency. The Constitutional question regards representational allocation and adjustment through the decennial census. The Constitution requires that Congressional representation be based on the whole number of persons, not voters or citizens in a state. My wife had a brief talk with Rep. Darrell Issas’ Chief of Staff in which she was informed that the Congressman only represented those who voted for him. So much for non-Republicans, minorities of all types or anyone under the age of 18. In this world view, we who have lived in this district and paid property taxes for 27 years, paid income taxes for both our lives are not deserving of representation. Perhaps that, more than anything else, represents the true nature of the problem.

  7. Raoul Contreras2 years ago

    Here’s the case:…

    1. MiMi2 years ago

      Whatever. The Founding Fathers would never have drawn the constitution up in that way if they could foresee the future presidents inviting an invasion of millions of illegals into Texas, Arizona, California & the other 47 states. What has been done is unconstitutional and could be considered treasonous. 25% of the population of Mexico has invaded the United States . . . clearly NOT what the Founders intended and therefore should NOT be considered in the same way as stated in your link. This Betrayal, vastly increased under our current president, weakens and undermines this once great country.

      1. John Stanton2 years ago

        The Founding Fathers had an interesting formula to determine the number of persons counted for purposes of representation. It included multiplying the number of slaves by 3/5. Women and children counted as people. Indians who did not pay taxes were not counted as people at all.

        It is in the interests of Republicans and their one percenter masters to decrease the number of non-white voters as much as possible. Promoting ignorance, anti-science sentiment, and prejudice also aids their cause.

    2. Robert Nugent1 year ago

      MiMi Part of the reason is a city could establish a sanctuary city and encourage illegals to move there. As their population goes up so will the number of congressional representative go up and the number of votes in the Electoral College. In California they have more Illegals and have gained seats and votes in the Electoral College. The congressmen then vote for programs to aid illegals and increase their power in congress and EC. Will a congressman vote for restrictions on illegals and decrease funding for programs that benefit illegals. Because they need the illegals to keep their seat not the US Citizens.

  8. Walt French2 years ago

    Do I understand this correctly: MY vote’s impact is higher if I get my NEIGHBOR to register, whether or not she ever votes?

    And conversely, politicians who have assiduously but selectively worked to remove students, the poor, the elderly etc., from some of their state’s rolls, will now be doubly rewarded by shrinking the influence of those who are left in those districts?

    This does not sound like equal representation at all. Rife with opportunities for mischief and disenfranchisement.

    1. Lucky2 years ago

      I doesn’t sound like you understand correctly.

      Eligibility is not the same as registration. Even assuming it’s true some ‘politicians have selectively worked to remove certain voters from the state’s rolls,’ these potential voters still exist. Provided I’m eligible to vote (over 18, not a felon, a U.S. citizen, etc.), I will still count as an eligible voter even if I’ve never voted and never intend to vote.

      This is a partisan disagreement and therefore we should prepare for an avalanche of misinformation, but either method of distribution is reasonable. A complete census method represents ineligible voters by inflating the power of the eligible voters within the district. An eligible voter census equalizes the power of all voters, but eliminates virtual representation of anyone else.

      There are legitimate arguments for either approach, but I for one don’t expect to hear much of them. They will be buried beneath indignant screaming of ‘my way or you’re a horrible person!’