The Supreme Court: Remapping Districts

Remapping Districts

Voting districts are mapped by each state every 10 years after the completion of a U.S. Census. These district maps draw the boundaries for voting in districts for the U.S. House of Representatives as well as for districts in state legislatures.

Voting districts are supposed to be as equal as possible in number of voters per representative. After a census count, in most states these lines need to be redrawn to reflect any population changes. States whose population is increasing may end up with more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, while states that are losing population could lose seats in the House. The final total always needs to be 435, which is the number of Constitutionally mandated seats in the House. The Senate has 100 seats or two per state.

Just the Facts

Texas went through a very visible battle over redistricting its Congressional seats in 2003. Democratic legislatures fled the state twice to prevent a vote on a new district map. Texas law requires a quorum for any voting to take place in its legislature. By fleeing the state the Democrats prevented a vote they knew they would lose. Traditionally redistricting is only done after a 10-year census, but Texas Republicans are trying to do one sooner. Challenges to this redistricting attempt will probably be taken to the courts and possibly even the United States Supreme Court.

Games are played by politicians when designing the districts as they try to build districts that will be most beneficial to electing someone of their own party. In each state house, the party in control tries to draw districts that will give them the greatest number of safe seats—seats in which someone of their own party has the best chance of being elected. The party not in control will attempt to prevent this and if the new district map is questionable may even challenge it in state court.

Department of Commerce v. United States House

Redistricting issues are usually left to the state courts, but occasionally the United States Supreme Court does get involved if a question of constitutionality is raised. One case that directly impacted how the census data would be collected was decided by the Supreme Court on January 25, 1999, in Department of Commerce v. United States House.

In this case the House of Representatives and a group of individual taxpayers challenged the administration's plan for using statistical sampling in the 2000 census to supplement the more traditional procedure of trying to reach every household. As we discussed, this directly impacts how the nation's population is counted and how the seats in Congress will be divided among the states.

The Constitution's Census Clause authorizes Congress to direct an “actual Enumeration” of the American public every 10 years to provide a basis for apportioning Congressional representation among the states. The Congress delegated this responsibility to the Department of Commerce. Commerce wanted to supplement the traditional count with statistical sampling techniques in 2000 because it was widely known that minority populations were undercounted.

The House took the position that the use of sampling is barred by both the Constitution and the Census Act. The Supreme Court ruled the Census Act did prohibit “the proposed uses of statistical sampling in calculating the population for purposes of apportionment” and therefore did not need to rule on the constitutional question presented. Statistical sampling was barred from use and the Commerce Department conducted the census in the traditional manner.

City of Mobile v. Bolden

Another recent election dispute settled by the Supreme Court involved charges of discrimination in City of Mobile v. Bolden. William Bolden brought the case as a class action on behalf of himself and other residents of the city of Mobile, Alabama. He argued that the practice of electing city commissioners at-large unfairly diluted the voting strength of black citizens. In many cities commissioners are elected by district rather than at-large without specified district boundaries, so they represent a specific portion of the city. In most cities there are predominantly white neighborhoods and predominately black neighborhoods. In cities where commissioners represent districts there is a greater chance the black neighborhoods will be represented by someone sympathetic to their views.

Both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth District sided with Bolden. The district court ruled that the at-large electoral system violated the Fifteenth Amendment and discriminated against Negroes in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Bolden wanted the at-large electoral system to be changed to one of representative districts. The lower courts agreed.

Court Connotations

The Fifteenth Amendment prohibits denying the right to vote on the grounds of race, color, or previous conditions of servitude.

The Supreme Court overturned the lower courts on April 22, 1980, saying the Fifteenth Amendment did not entail “the right to have Negro candidates elected.” It ruled the primary purpose of that amendment was to prevent citizens from being denied the freedom to vote because of discrimination. It also ruled the Fourteenth Amendment did not make multimember legislative districts unconstitutional, but would violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteen Amendment if they were “conceived or operated as a purposeful device to further racial … discrimination.”

Mahan v. Howell

The most recent key reapportionment case decided by the Supreme Court is Mahan v. Howell in February 1973. Henry Howell challenged a redistricting plan passed by the Virginia legislature in 1971. The legislature had reapportioned the seats for its House of Representatives and provided for 100 representatives in 52 districts with each House member representing an average of 46,485 constituents.

Living Laws

The Supreme Court ruled in Mahan v. Howell that state legislative reapportionment is “given wider constitutional latitude” than for reapportionment of U.S Congressional seats to facilitate representation on local political issues.

Howell based his challenge on the variance in district sizes. The difference between the largest district and the smallest district was a difference of 16.4 percent. The ideal is considered to be about 4 percent. Howell said these deviations were too large to satisfy the principle of “one person, one vote” and unconstitutionally violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court agreed with Howell and drew up its own lines to reduce the percentage variation to about 10 percent.

The Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling saying that the plan was constitutional under the equal protection clause, which requires a state to make an “honest and good faith effort” to constrict districts of equal population. The Supreme Court ruled that some deviations from the equal population principle are valid if based on legitimate considerations of a “rational state policy” and facilitates “enactment of statutes of purely local concern and preserves for the voters in the political subdivisions a voice in the state legislature on local matters.”

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.