Modern Voting Rights Act Takes Another Constitutional Stumble

In 2009, Irving, Texas, was forced to redraw its city council districts after a federal court held that its multi-member-district system discriminated against Hispanic voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which protects the rights of racial and linguistic minorities to elect their preferred candidates (whatever that means). Following complex Section 2 precedent, the court employed the requisite “citizen of voting age population” (CVAP) standard and found that, in the absence of at-large elections, Irving’s Hispanic voters could have constituted their own majority district.

When Irving finished redrawing its map, the total population count of residents inhabiting each district was roughly equal and one was indeed majority-Hispanic. Because the redistricting process used total population instead of CVAP, however, that particular district had a significant concentration of non-citizen residents. A relatively small constituency of eligible voters in that district thus had their votes so “over-weighted” that their voting power was effectively double that of voters in the other districts (which, again, were similarly populated but had twice the number of eligible voters).

Irving citizens sued the city, alleging violations of their voting rights as guaranteed by the one-person, one-vote (OPOV) principle under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a dismissal of these claims, following circuit precedent holding that the decision to use either total population or CVAP when applying OPOV should be left to elected officials’ discretion. Astonishingly, even though courts are required to use CVAP when examining Section 2 racial-discrimination claims—see above—the Fifth Circuit completely ignored the CVAP disparities in the redrawn districting plan.

Cato has now filed an amicus brief supporting the Irving citizens’ request that the Supreme Court take the case. We have frequently argued that courts confront a “bloody crossroads” when trying to reconcile the modern Voting Rights Act with the Constitution. Here, not only has the Fifth Circuit illustrated the tension between Section 2 and the Fourteenth Amendment, but similar rulings in the Fourth and Ninth Circuits—either deferring to the political branches or precluding the use of CVAP altogether—have heightened the conflict.

The Fourteenth Amendment and OPOV are emphatically within the province of the judiciary to enforce. We thus urge the Court to review the intolerable contradiction that arises when Section 2, intended to enforce the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment, is used to violate OPOV.

While once a functional proxy for equalizing the voting strength of eligible voters, the total population metric has become imprecise and outmoded. In areas with high concentrations of non-citizen, non-voter residents, it can conceal substantive demographic differences that undermine the principle of voter equality. CVAP, by contrast, is the most precise measure of the substantive electoral equality and the proper means for reconciling the conflict between Section 2 and the Fourteenth Amendment.

The name of the case is Lepak v. City of Irving. The city and certain activist groups that have intervened in the case will now file their opposition to the petition for review, and then the Supreme Court will decide this spring whether to take the case and set it for argument in the fall.