Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Evenwel and Minority Representation

David Gans

Next month, the Supreme Court will consider Sue Evenwel’s bid to change the way state and local governments draw election districts.  Demanding that state and local governments across the nation change the way they draw legislative lines, Evenwel argues that it is unconstitutional for states to draw districts based on total population, creating districts of substantially equal numbers of people.   Evenwel’s arguments—which fly in the face of our Constitution’s promise of equal representation for all—would undermine minority representation both in Texas, the state Evenwel is suing, and throughout the nation.  Recent events in Yakima, Washington, provide a good example. 

The town of Yakima—an agricultural community 140 miles east of Seattle—is forty percent Hispanic, but, until this year, had never elected a person of Hispanic origin to the town’s city council.  This year, a federal district court held that Yakima’s at-large system of elections for city council violated the Voting Rights Act by denying Hispanic voters an equal opportunity to elect their candidate of choice, and ordered the town to draw single-member districts composed of substantially equal population.   Earlier this month, in elections held under these court-ordered boundaries, three Hispanic candidates won election to office, ending the exclusion of Hispanics from elected office.   

But the town of Yakima is now using every avenue to undo these historic gains, claiming—as Evenwel does—that the Constitution does not permit state and local governments to draw districts composed of substantially equal numbers of people if those districts do not contain approximately the same number of eligible voters.   Yakima argues that the Hispanic voters’ claim under the Voting Rights Act should be dismissed because creating single-member districts in order to make it possible for the Hispanic community to elect its candidate of choice would result in “severe malapportionment of eligible voters.” Represented by defense counsel in the Voting Rights Act litigation, Yakima has even gone  so far as to file an amicus brief in the Supreme Court supporting Evenwel’s attack on the principle of equal representation for equal numbers of people. 

As this example illustrates, Evenwel’s far-reaching arguments, if accepted by the Court, would  not only wreak havoc with our democracy, requiring states to change the way they draw district lines, but it would also make it harder to draw election boundaries that ensure that racial minorities have an equal chance to elect representatives of their choice.  Evenwel’s argument would undermine the protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act and take political power away from urban population centers where racial minorities overwhelmingly live, giving it to whiter, more rural areas.  This is no accident.    Ed Blum—the mastermind behind Evenwel’s case—wants to stop states from creating majority-minority districts that help ensure equal political opportunities for all regardless of race.  Denying equal representation to unnaturalized immigrants, children, and others who lack the franchise won’t alone accomplish Blum’s goal, but it would make it harder to draw election boundaries that ensure that minorities have a fair chance at the polls.  Among the losers—if Blum succeeds in eliminating the guarantee of equal representation for equal numbers of people—will be racial minorities in places like Yakima, who will, once again, find it harder to have their voices heard.  

David Gans is the Director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights and Citizenship Program at the Constitutional Accountability Center and a co-author of CAC's brief in Evenwel v. Abbott.  This post is cross-posted at Text and History.  

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