The recent U. S. Supreme Court decision in Evenwel v Abbott upheld the misguided and undemocratic practice of apportioning legislative districts based on equal numbers of residents, regardless of citizenship. That method is generally, but erroneously, summed up in the slogan, “one person, one vote.” The goal really should be, “one citizen, one vote.”
Before dismissing this commentary from some right wing group, be assured that it comes from a life-long leftist.
Half a century ago the court became concerned about the unacceptable imbalance in the number of people living within legislative districts. This was especially true in those states where the upper house of the legislature was based on counties, with a single representative for each county, regardless of the size of population. By mid-twentieth century some urban counties had a population many times that of rural ones, yet each had a single vote in the state senate. A relatively few farmers could elect a state senator, while hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were limited to a single one as well.
It was out of this unacceptable condition that the “one person, one vote” movement arose, demanding that the court force states to change their method of apportionment. The first really significant court ruling on this was Reynolds v Simsin 1964, which led to creation of districts relatively equal in population.
That’s the source of the current problem. The court’s original goal, and that of the plaintiffs, was not creation of districts equal in population. The intent was to make the vote of one citizen equal in weight to that of another, regardless of where they lived in the state.
In the mid-1960s, creation of districts of equal population achieved this since virtually all residents were citizens. A district of 400,000 in a rural area of the state probably had as many citizens as a similar district in an urbanized section.
But that’s not true any more, even within the urban areas. In California, assembly districts have a little over 450,000 residents in each of the 80 districts. But far fewer citizens live in one district than in another, even in heavily urbanized Los Angeles County. A relatively few citizens in the 53d assembly district elected an assemblyman in 2014 while three times as many voted in the 50th.
The 50th district, running from Malibu and Agoura Hills to Bel Air and Beverly Hills, had 470,000 residents, of whom 348,000 were citizens of voting age, when redrawn after the 2010 census. The 53d, located mainly in Huntington Park, had 464,000 residents, but only 164,000 were voting age citizens. The 50th is 12% Latino, while the 53d is 68% Latino, a large portion of whom are non-citizens.
The Citizens Redistricting Commission, with “Fair Representation – Democracy at Work” ironically on its letterhead, drew those district boundaries after the last census. The commission created districts relatively equal in number of residents. They did so guided by the controversial belief that all residents, citizens or not, should be equally represented in the legislature since all were entitled to have access to those who made the laws.
Non-citizens pay taxes, use public facilities, send their kids to school and in many other ways are affected by what the legislature does. Therefore, according to this viewpoint, legislators ought to have an equal number of constituents, regardless of citizenship, so that all residents have an equal access to their legislators. The commission operated on the principal of “one person, one vote.”
How has this affected the election of state assembly members?
In the overwhelmingly Latino 53d, with a total population equal to that of the 50th, the winning assembly candidate in 2014 received 20,472 votes out of only 32,000 cast. In the 50th, the winner garnered 78,093 out of a total of 109,000.
The citizenship figures are equally revealing. In the Latino 53d, while 354,000 residents were of voting age, over half were non-citizens. Of the 400,000 residents of voting age in the 50th, over 75% were citizens.
These two contrasting districts demonstrate clearly the fallacy of “one person, one vote” when that phrase is used to justify establishing districts on the basis of population, not citizenship. It explains why the Latino citizens of the state, especially in urban areas, have a disproportionate voice in the state legislature and tend to dominate the Democratic party in Los Angeles.
There is no legitimate basis for counting non-citizens when establishing boundary lines for legislative districts. “One citizen, one vote” is the motto that ought to be adopted by citizens redistricting commissions and by the court.