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Supreme Court Upholds 'One Person, One Vote' Standard


We know here in the U.S. that according to the Constitution, we, the people, rule. But who are we, the people? Who counts? This morning, the Supreme Court weighed in on a question along those lines. The court unanimously upheld a Texas law that counts everyone, not just eligible voters, in deciding how to draw voting districts. NPR's legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, is at the court. And she joins us now. Good morning, Nina.


KELLY: How big a deal is this, given that it affirms the way things are currently being done?

TOTENBERG: It's still a very big deal because this was a very big challenge. A group of conservatives who had successfully challenged large parts of the Voting Rights Act and dismembered it now went after the way every state reapportions its districts every 10 years based on the census. And every state does it by equalizing the population in the districts. And this group said, you're diluting the votes of eligible voters and registered voters. We're the only people who should be counted because we're the only people voting. And the Supreme Court ruled, no, that's not true. Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that the founding fathers of the 14th Amendment specifically, for the federal government, ruled out the idea of not including everybody. And it cannot be, she said, that the 14th Amendment calls for apportionment of congressional districts based on total population but simultaneously forbids states from apportioning their own legislative districts the very same way.

KELLY: OK. Nina, before we move on, let's just pause for a moment and note that word we just used - unanimous. How significant is that in a court that we keep hearing about being split, 4-4?

TOTENBERG: Well, it's significant because every state does it this way. So if the court had been more - more divided than it is, it would have sent a signal. But, you know, the court really is unanimous on a bunch of important cases. It's just not unanimous on a bunch of others. And this is not one that is easy to go the other way because the census says, I don't know how we would do this for you. I don't know how we'd count just vote - eligible voters or registered voters.

KELLY: Talk us through some of the wider applications of this ruling. I mean, take it - take us beyond the electoral districts in Texas. What about - what about implications for the rest of the country?

TOTENBERG: The thing that's important to understand about this case is this was a challenge to the way every state in the country apportions its districts. It includes everybody when it makes the count. What the challengers in this said is, we should only count because we're eligible or registered voters. That would leave out children. That would leave out legal permanent residents. It would leave out illegal residents. It would leave out even people who have served a term in jail and therefore are no longer eligible to vote. It leaves out a lot of people. And they wanted to leave them out. And they didn't succeed.

KELLY: That's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, joining us from the Supreme Court. Thank you, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.