People Who Can’t Vote Still Count Politically in America. What if That Changes?

Three years ago, before the Trump administration moved to add a citizenship question to the census, and before many experts even imagined what that might mean, the Supreme Court considered a case that raised a related question.

Two Texas voters had sued the state, saying their votes were diluted by a state redistricting map that gave equal weight to areas with fewer people allowed to vote. Political power, the plaintiffs claimed, should be divided only among the voting population, not among everyone.

Their preferred method, shared by a number of conservative politicians, would erase from state political maps not only noncitizens, but also children — two groups that aren’t evenly distributed across states. The resulting maps would tend to shift power from the places where children and noncitizens are more plentiful to places where there are more older and white residents. At the state level, such maps would also strip from these groups a principle as old as the Constitution: that even someone who cannot vote still deserves representation.

In that 2016 case, Evenwel v. Abbott, the court unanimously ruled that Texas could draw legislative districts by total population, the method every state has long used. But the justices left open the question of whether states must do this, or if — and this is where the citizenship question comes in — they can draw maps that count only voting-age citizens.

A map and a legal case that strike directly at that question will inevitably come (Justice Samuel Alito anticipated it in 2016). And if the Supreme Court allows the census to gather citizenship data on every person in America, that case seeking to redefine what representation means is likely to come soon.

The Constitution is clear that congressional seats must be apportioned by total population. But states and local governments that would have comprehensive citizenship data in the next redistricting cycle could draw maps built on a very different population base, at a time when the country is growing more diverse, its child population particularly so.

Newly released census data show, for the first time, that the total population of children in America under 15 is now majority nonwhite.

Any future political maps that exclude those children and noncitizens would further depress the power of urban areas that tend to vote Democratic and that are already structurally disadvantaged in redistricting.

Groups that sued to block the citizenship question argue that the Trump administration’s true goal — hinted at in recent documentsunearthed in the litigation — is to set this chain of events in motion. Even without these larger changes, a citizenship question that deters some immigrants from participating in the census could affect congressional apportionment.


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Emily Badger