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PD Editorial: ‘One person, one vote’ survives

In a welcome but depressingly rare victory against voter suppression, the U.S. Supreme Court this week rejected a challenge to the principle of “one person, one vote.”

The Project on Fair Representation, a conservative group busily contesting voting rights and affirmative action laws around the country, sought to end the widespread practice of drawing election districts by total population. The plaintiffs, focused on how districts are shaped in Texas, argued that a more equitable method would be to use the number of eligible voters instead.

Fairness wasn’t really the goal, however. The change would have eliminated millions of people, who aren’t eligible to vote, from the counts – children, undocumented immigrants and the mentally ill, among others. Not coincidentally, the redrawn maps would have favored Republican-friendly rural areas, shifting power from urban minority communities that tend to vote for Democrats.

The eight-member court unanimously rejected the challenge. It was such a bad idea that even the court’s conservative bloc opposed it. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, noted that nonvoters have an important stake in many policy debates, particularly children whose lives are shaped by public education. “By ensuring that each representative is subject to requests and suggestions from the same number of constituents, total population apportionment promotes equitable and effective representation,” she wrote.

The court clarified the “one person, one vote” principle in the early 1960s, drawing upon the 14th Amendment to explain that population, not geography, is the determining factor in creating election districts. Imbalanced districts were common in the United States then, but it was a particular problem in the South, where white supremacists routinely manipulated the electoral process to disenfranchise African-Americans. Justice Earl Warren regarded the rulings as the court’s most vital decision in his years on the bench.

Unfortunately, chipping away – or taking a sledgehammer to – such achievements has become common again. Three years ago, the same advocacy group challenged the landmark Voting Rights Act, convincing a divided Supreme Court to set aside requirements that the federal government review changes in voting laws in states with a troubled record on civil rights.

Ginsburg warned of a “return to old ways” if the reviews were eliminated, and she was right. In Arizona last month, heavily minority areas faced lines of five hours to cast a vote in party primaries after election officials cut the number of polling places in urban neighborhoods.

Similar complaints have arisen in other states. In North Carolina, for example, there were reports of late changes in the location of polling places, a spike in provisional ballots and confusion over new photo ID laws in last month’s primary voting. In Wisconsin, a new voter ID law caused similar problems.

Chaos and consternation at the polls aren’t surprising, given relentless efforts by conservative Republicans to reduce early-voting opportunities and institute stricter ID requirements, ostensibly to combat fraud that’s never been proven to exist.

This week, at least, the voices of voter suppression didn’t drown out the protectors of our democratic principles. But continued vigilance is needed against those who wish to return to the old ways.

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