Immigrant-Heavy Areas Could Face a Loss in Political Representation

PHOTO: Lepak v. City of Irving questions the constitutionality of the "one person, one vote" mandate, when districts have equal numbers of people, but not equal numbers of citizens.Albert Sabaté/ABC/Univision
Lepak v. City of Irving questions the constitutionality of the "one person, one vote" mandate, when districts have equal numbers of people, but not equal numbers of citizens.

The American legal concept of "one person, one vote" means that everyone's vote should count equally.

But there's a potential problem with that: not all people can vote.

The issue of whether the concept of "one person, one vote" should be clarified to account for non-citizens -- who can't vote -- is the subject of a case that the Supreme Court considered hearing on Friday.

At question in the Texas-based case, Lepak v. City of Irving, is whether total population or only eligible voters should be considered when drawing up electoral districts.

Districts are divided to have equal numbers of people. However, if districts are drawn with an equal number of residents, but one district has fewer eligible voters than another, then those voters' ballots are worth more because there are fewer overall voters who can influence the result.

Voters have never had completely equal shares of power. For example, because children or others who can't vote may be represented more heavily in one district or another, vote influence can't be a mathematical one-to-one. What changes in this case is the perceived undue influence of immigrant or even undocumented communities.

The case started in Irving, Texas, home to more than 220,000, of which 41 percent are Hispanic. The city had had an at-large electoral system, resulting in the election of an all-white, non-Hispanic city council. At-large means a system where all residents vote for councilmembers rather than having districts select an individual leader from their district.

A suit challenging the at-large system was filed and, in 2009, a court found that the city's use of that system denied Hispanic citizens an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. The city adopted a plan that included electing council members based on districts.

A few appeals (and years) later, the case has come to the Supreme Court for clarification of the following question: whether a court-ordered election plan designed to remedy the dilution of minority voting rights complies with the constitutional "one-person, one-vote" mandate, when districts have equal numbers of people, but not equal numbers of citizens.

According to by Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of political science at UC Riverside, a modification to the way districts are drawn could bring significant changes to districts at the local, state and congressional levels, and would mean "massive social upheaval." He wrote in a Los Angeles Times editorial that the congressional representation for states with higher numbers of noncitizens could be affected by any changes. For example, in California, 15 percent of residents are non-citizens. The national average is 7 percent.

"If noncitizens had been excluded in the 2010 apportionment, a total of 10 House seats would have been allocated differently, with California losing the most (five seats), followed by Texas (two seats) and Florida, New York and Washington (one each). If the logic of counting only enfranchised populations today were extended further — to also exclude children and other voting-ineligible populations such as prisoners — a total of 13 seats would be allocated differently than they are today, with California losing six seats, Texas losing five and Florida and Georgia losing one each."

A ruling could also impact state and local electoral politics, according to Ramakrishan.

Even if congressional districts remain untouched, "it could still allow the drawing of state and local districts to exclude noncitizens and other ineligible voters. Such a move could also cause significant political upheaval. In states that choose to exclude noncitizens from the drawing of representative districts, places with relatively high proportions of noncitizens, such as dense urban areas and agricultural regions with immigrant workers, would lose political power in state legislatures."