A closely divided Supreme Court on Tuesday struggled to decide “what kind of democracy people wanted,” as Justice Stephen G. Breyer put it during an argument over the meaning of the constitutional principle of “one person one vote.” The court’s decision in the case, expected by June, has the potential to shift political power from urban areas to rural ones, a move that would provide a big boost to Republican voters in state legislative races in large parts of the nation. The basic question in the case, Evenwel v. Abbott, No. 14-940, is who must be counted in creating voting districts: all residents or just eligible voters? Right now, all states and most localities count everyone. The difference matters because people who are not eligible to vote — children, immigrants here legally who are not citizens, unauthorized immigrants, people disenfranchised for committing felonies, prisoners — are not spread evenly across the country. With the exception of prisoners, they tend to be concentrated in urban areas.
Their presence amplifies the voting power of eligible voters in those areas, usually helping Democrats. Rural areas that lean Republican, by contrast, usually have higher percentages of eligible voters.
The case, a challenge to voting districts for the Texas Senate, was brought by Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger, who asked the court to require states to count eligible voters. They are represented by the Project on Fair Representation, a small conservative advocacy group that has been active in cases concerning race and voting.