The dangerous new assault on voting rights
Imagine a family. The mother was born in the United States, her grandparents were immigrants from Europe. The father is a legal permanent resident, originally from Latin America. They have three children, ages spanning from kindergarten to high school to just starting college. A happy American family of five. Mine.
Each member of every American family has a unique story. Laws in our nation affect us in unique ways, as individuals and as a family unit. From the education the children receive, to the jobs, healthcare and infrastructure we all access – we all navigate our communities in different ways.
Today, our nation’s highest court will hear a case that aims to undercount families like mine – and countless others in states like Florida, New York, Texas, and everywhere where there are families with children of color. During oral arguments before the Supreme Court, plaintiffs in Evenwel v. Abbott will argue that the mapping of electoral districts should only count the voting population – excluding all Americans who are too young to vote or are otherwise disenfranchised. A family of five would be counted as only one. It’s illogical. Worse, it violates our Constitution because it’s discriminatory.
Due to age distributions, immigration trends, and our nation’s unfortunate legacy of voter suppression, basing our electoral mapping exclusively on voting population would systematically push people of color out of the realm of equal representation. For the span of a decade, or more, entire portions of communities, mostly in urban areas, would be seemingly negligible in our electoral calculus, and our representatives would have no incentive to include the outsiders in their decisions about the communities’ schools, police, or other policies.
Automatically, excluding all persons below the age of 18 in redistricting would undercount people of color. This is because Black, Latino, Asian and Native American communities are on average significantly younger than the population at large—and particularly, White Americans. The median age among Latinos, for instance, is nearly a decade below the U.S. median population of 37.2 years. This trend continues among other communities of color, with average age being in the low- to mid-thirties. In contrast, the White population’s median age is 42 years. Considering these numbers, it becomes apparent that excluding young Americans—as the Evenwelplaintiffs argue must be done in redistricting—is a proxy to exclude people of color.Over one-half of Latinos and nearly a third of African American, Asian and Native Americans would not be counted during redistricting.
More problems would arise due to counting only the voting population in redistricting. The plaintiffs’ scheme would discount whole populations of residents who have not yet naturalized. As of January 2013, 8.8 million lawful permanent residents in the United States were eligible for naturalization, primarily people of color. If the scheme proposed in the Evenwel v. Abbott challenge were to take hold, millions of people who pay taxes, own businesses and send their kids to school would be shut out of representation.
Even among naturalized or U.S.-born citizens who are above the age of 18, people of color would still be disproportionately excluded from equal representation. This is due to a variety of factors, including voting list purges that systematically target voters of color. For example, in 2000 and 2004, Florida purged voters by using lists containing names of people who had allegedly committed felonies. This faulted method disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters with no such convictions, most of whom were African American. In 2012, the state attempted to apply similar tactics to remove alleged non-citizens, using error-prone lists that targeted eligible voters of color, particularly Latinos. Ultimately proven illegal, these purges fit within a legacy of voter suppression that extends from literacy tests of earlier generations to newer relics of Jim Crow, such as restrictive photo ID laws. These tactics all block voters of color from the ballot box. The scheme that the Supreme Court is reviewing in Evenwel v. Abbott would limit their representation even further.
The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was enacted so that people of color would no longer be considered only three-fifths of a person; the Evenwel plaintiffs now argue that some people should now be counted as zero-fifths of a person. This offensive scheme would dilute the ability of communities to elect the candidates of their choice and would stifle resources allocated to the districts where these populations have been undercounted. This simply cannot be rationalized in a democracy.
Ultimately, the Evenwel case forces us to ask: Why would we want a democracy that does not count our children and discounts our neighbors? It is the responsibility of our nation’s leaders to represent the people of their districts—not only those who elected them. This is the core of representative and constitutional democracy. Why defy this principle now?
Evenwel v. Abbott marks a critical turning point. Our nation can take a regressive pivot backwards or affirm our core values of equality and justice. While the Supreme Court could let the Evenwel plaintiffs force chaotic and discriminatory redistricting schemes upon us all, the better choice is to uphold our most fundamental right to equal representation.
This piece was originally published in Salon.com