Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about “one person, one vote.” Need a primer? Catch up here.

When it comes to running for Congress, not all candidates need the same number of votes to win.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, one member of Congress – Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) – represents the district with the fewest number of eligible voters, at about 300,000. At the other end of the spectrum, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), represents more than twice that number.

There are a number of reasons for this disparity. But the one very much at issue as the Supreme Court nears a decision on Evenwel v. Abbott is that Roybal-Allard’s district and many like it include large numbers of undocumented immigrants, who are nevertheless counted by those drawing the districts.

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A 2006 study conducted by the pro-immigrant rights Immigration Policy Center found that one congressional district in Arizona was one-quarter undocumented immigrants. Roybal-Allard’s district, which has since been redrawn, had one of the highest illegal immigrant populations at 15 percent, or more than 100,000 in total.

All of which is to say: If the Supreme Court changes current practice and rules that “one person, one vote” means that districts must be drawn according to the number of resident citizens rather than total population, it could have a significant impact on how our districts are drawn, and thus on the balance of power in Congress.

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Determining how this would break down along partisan lines is difficult to say with certainty. But it’s safe to guess that the states losing districts would mostly be blue, and the districts that would need to take in more territory to gain citizens would overwhelmingly be those held by Democrats. This would mean fewer liberal districts overall, giving more power to more rural, conservative and Republican territories.

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Consequently, it might make comprehensive immigration reform an even more elusive goal.

Conservative commentators have argued for years that a new pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants – a linchpin of comprehensive immigration reform – would hurt the Republican Party by newly enfranchising millions of voters who would be likely to vote Democrat, given that Latinos (who make up a large proportion of these immigrants) lean increasingly and overwhelmingly Democratic.

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A second argument against comprehensive reform emerges from the Evenwel case. If the Supreme Court were to change the standard for “one person, one vote” to mean that only citizens should be represented, it would give the GOP a new-found advantage in the drawing of districts. However, allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens would (eventually, at least) negate the GOP’s advantage by adding Democrat-leaning immigrants to the voter rolls and re-adding their population totals the redistricting process.

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That first argument against the pathway to citizenship – the one that is already widely espoused – is, of course, the more compelling and easily explained of the two. Yet if Evenwel is upheld, its potential downsides won’t make the GOP any more likely to suddenly warm to the idea of comprehensive immigration reform.

It’s not exactly something that the vast majority of GOP voters will instantly pick up on. But for those in the party who think it needs to get right with Latinos and pass comprehensive reform (as opposed to its base, which is staunchly opposed to anything that could be construed as “amnesty”), a new ruling on “one person, one vote” may end up being another practical reason to avoid action on a reform that is already unlikely to occur.

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Correction: This post originally suggested states with high numbers of illegal immigrants could lost districts if these immigrants weren’t included under “one person one vote.” While the drawing of districts would indeed change, the Constitution clearly requires the apportionment of districts to each state by the number of total people, including immigrants. This section had been removed from the post.

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Explore these other perspectives:

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