One person, one vote? How the Supreme Court could reshape US elections

The Supreme Court takes up a major Texas redistricting case Tuesday. But it's Yakima, Wash., that shows the stakes most starkly.  

Susan Walsh/AP/File
The US Supreme Court in Washington, Oct. 3, 2014. The Supreme Court is casting a skeptical eye on voter-approved commissions that draw a state's congressional district boundaries. On Tuesday, December 8, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a Texas case that raises this question: If electoral maps are drawn according to total population, does that unconstitutionally dilute the clout of citizens who can actually vote?

Some folks said it would be impossible for a Latino candidate to win election to the city council in conservative Yakima, Wash. 

Carmen Mendez proved them wrong.

So did Dulce Gutierrez. So did Avina Gutierrez.

Last month, all three women made history, becoming the first individuals of Hispanic heritage to win election to the seven-member city council traditionally dominated by white conservatives.

While their victories sparked celebrations in some parts of town, the achievement came after years of bitter litigation that prompted the redrafting of voting districts and required three Anglo council members to stand for reelection or leave office halfway through their four-year terms.

And the fight isn’t over. Council members filed an appeal raising a fundamental question: Does the constitutional principle of one person, one vote permit a federal judge to draw voting districts that enhance the power of individual voters in minority districts while diluting voters’ clout in predominantly Anglo districts?

The most recent Yakima election, for instance, saw only 549 voters cast ballots in a redrawn, Latino-majority district. In contrast, 3,593 voters turned out in a predominantly Anglo district. 

For now, the Yakima appeal is on hold, but on Tuesday the United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a Texas case that raises the same basic question: If electoral maps are drawn according to total population, does that unconstitutionally dilute the clout of citizens who can actually vote?

Those challenging the Texas system argue that the large numbers of noncitizens in the state can dilute or enhance the power of individual voters from district to district. By their math, the fluctuation of noncitizen population from district to district means some voters cast ballots weighing 1-1/2 times more than those in other districts.

The case could reshape electoral maps nationwide by addressing the underlying question of whether those who can’t vote should continue to be included in the drawing of districts. 

“Instances of extreme electoral imbalance are not confined to Texas,” writes Francis Floyd of the Seattle law firm Floyd, Pflueger & Ringer in a friend of the court brief filed on behalf of Yakima in the Texas case.

“This issue will occur with increasing regularity due to the combination of shifting demographic trends and the efforts of organizations like the ACLU using litigation to impose single-member districts on jurisdictions,” said Mr. Floyd.

The problem is a relatively new one, Floyd said. Decades ago, districts drawn to be equal according to total population did not create serious imbalances because the total population was a reliable proxy for the number of eligible voters.

Now with an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US, total population in many jurisdictions no longer tracks citizen-voter demographics. Nonetheless, many lower court judges continue to enforce legal precedents from an earlier era.

Critics charge that such a system can’t possibly comply with one person, one vote. Supporters say the real goal is to ensure there is equal representation, not equality among voters.

A unique viewpoint

It is an issue that Ms. Mendez, an incoming Latina council member in Yakima, is well positioned to examine from both sides.

Although she joined her two colleagues as the first Hispanics to win a seat on the council, her path to victory was quite different. While her colleagues easily won in districts redrawn to increase Latino voting power, Mendez ran in a predominantly Anglo district.

In that way, her victory undermined the conclusion by the federal judge who mandated the new districts: without a judicial thumb on the scale, the judge held, it would be impossible for a Latino to win a council seat.

“I feel like some Latino community members aren’t completely happy with my victory,” Mendez says in an interview. “I think they appreciated the fact that I decided to run, but nobody expected me to win.”

She adds: “Once it happened, they said it proved the opposite of [the central allegation in] the lawsuit.”

Yakima is similar to many areas in the US that have witnessed rapid Hispanic growth. More than 41 percent of Yakima’s population of 91,000 is Latino, but Latinos make up only 23 percent of voting age citizens in the city.

But the fact that no Hispanic candidate had ever prevailed in a city council race was because of politics, not prejudice, some say. No moderate or conservative Latino candidates had ever run for office.

Virtually all of the elected officials that represent Yakima from Congress to the county to the city have been Republicans. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney outpolled President Obama in Yakima County by 11 points, 54 percent to 43 percent.

“Yakima is a conservative place,” says Dave Ettl, a city council member slated to leave office at the end of the month after having his term cut short by the judge.

“I’ve been in Yakima for 35 years. It is a left-right issue, not a white-brown issue,” he says.

Others have offered a darker explanation: that the city’s Anglo residents were voting as a bloc to systematically deprive Latinos of political power.

How Yakima elections changed

The ACLU of Washington filed a lawsuit in 2012 on behalf of two Latino voters who charged that the city’s long-time method of using at-large voting for city council diluted Latino voting strength in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

US District Judge Thomas Rice, an appointee of President Obama, agreed and ordered the city to create seven city council districts, adopting in total the ACLU’s proposed districts.

The new districts were drawn to maximize Latino voting power in part by using the city’s large population of Latino noncitizens to fill out Districts 1 and 2.

Latinos totaled 55 percent of eligible voters in District 1. Some 46 percent of eligible voters in District 2 were identified as Latino.

Although the city’s seven voting districts were roughly equal in total population – ranging in size from 12,500 in District 1 to 13,300 in District 7 – no effort was made to try to equalize the number of voters in each district.

As part of his remedial action, the judge ordered all seven members of the council to stand for reelection last month. The order included three members who had served only half of their four-year terms.

Two of the three displaced council members decided not to run again. They include Councilman Ettl and Mayor Micah Cawley, who was reelected to a four-year-term in 2013, winning 11,605 votes – 95 percent of ballots cast under the old city-wide election system.

“To be thrown out of office two years early is kind of challenging,” Mayor Cawley says in an interview.  

He said the judicial-ordered election system produced uneven results in last month’s election. “It is troublesome in a city of our size where you can get a few hundred votes and get elected to the city council,” he said.

The successful Latino candidate in District 1, Ms. Gutierrez, received 465 votes out of 549 votes cast in that district.

The winning candidate in predominantly Anglo District 6 received 2,095 votes out of 3,593 total votes cast in that district.

In terms of eligible voters, District 1 had a citizen voting age population of 4,800, compared with 9,800 eligible voters in District 7, also a predominantly Anglo district.

'Was it fair? No.'

Such discrepancies were not lost on Mendez, who won in District 3, where a quarter of eligible voters were Latino. She received 975 votes, 54 percent of votes cast.

“In my district in order to get the same [winning] percentage as District 1 and District 2, I had to get twice as many votes,” she said.

“It is frustrating for me to have to get twice as many votes to get 50 percent, and someone gets half as much as me and gets 80 percent of the vote,” Mendez said. “It is frustrating, but unfortunately this is the way it was designed.”

“Was it fair,” she says. “No.”

But Mendez says elections in Yakima are a work in progress. “What it used to be wasn’t working,” she says. Without the judge’s ruling and the resulting city-wide debate over voting rights, she believes she would never have won a seat on the council.

Asked what advice she would offer to other cities with a significant Latino population, Mendez says to make sure all residents receive fair representation. “I would say if [city officials] don’t want to be sued, they should look at their voting system and whether it is representative of their constituents,” she said.

Ettl offered a different response to the same question. “Hold your breath until June and see what happens” at the Supreme Court in the Texas case, he said. 

In his friend of the court brief, Floyd urged the high court to provide a ruling with clear instructions for lower courts. He stressed that cities like Yakima need help right now.

Ettl says that cities must consciously reach out to minority residents and recruit quality minority candidates. “But I wouldn’t rig the deck and draw the district lines based on race.”

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