President Donald Trump still wants to dramatically reshape the electoral map ― he’s just no longer pushing to use a citizenship question on the census to do it.
After the president announced Thursday that he’s dropping his bid to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census, he signaled that he plans to use other means to find out how many citizens, legal residents and undocumented immigrants are living in the U.S. That information could be particularly useful, Trump said, for states that want to draw electoral districts based on eligible voters ― a move that is likely to benefit Republicans.
“If you think about how hard they pushed for the question, they understand” the stakes, said Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “If you draw district lines based on voter-eligible population, then you are moving power very clearly from urban areas to more rural areas. It’s a win for Republicans. There’s just no two ways about it.”
Electoral districts must have roughly the same number of people in them and states currently use the total population, including people ineligible to vote, as the baseline for drawing boundaries. Drawing legislative districts based only on voter-eligible populations would benefit Republicans, experts generally agree. In a private 2015 memo, the late Thomas Hofeller, a leading redistricting expert, wrote that redistricting based only the citizen voting-age population would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.
The fight over citizen-based redistricting is one that will have huge political consequences. It’s also one rooted in a deeper debate about who gets to be represented in America and what the fundamental principle of “one person, one vote” actually means.
Drawing districts based on voter-eligible population would favor white areas where people are more likely to be citizens, said Kim Brace, a redistricting expert. Hispanic areas, by contrast, he said, would probably lose power because they likely contain fewer citizens.
Civil rights and voting groups had long suspected that redistricting was driving the Trump administration’s aggressive efforts to get a citizenship question on the census. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in a 2016 case called Evenwel v. Abbott that states weren’t required to draw legislative districts on the basis of eligible voters, but did not answer whether a state could choose to redistrict that way. The issue is extremely likely to return to the Supreme Court in the near future.
Conservatives like former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who advised Trump on adding the census question, and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) complain that districts drawn based on total population inflate the value of a single vote in districts where there are many ineligible voters. If there are 100 people in a district, the logic goes, and only 20 of them are citizens, each of those 20 votes carries a lot of weight. If there are 100 people in the neighboring district and 70 of them are eligible to vote, each vote matters comparatively less.
“The principle of one person, one vote, which is the cornerstone of our egalitarian system of democracy, requires that equal numbers of citizens can cast their votes without having their votes diluted by large numbers of non-citizens in a districting plan,” said Edward Blum, head of the Project on Fair Representation, which was behind the Evenwel case.
The basis for the way Blum and other conservatives think about drawing districts is a notion of vote equality ― each vote should count exactly the same as another person’s. But American democracy has long been rooted in an idea of representational equality, the idea that each elected official should be accountable to roughly the same amount of people, regardless of whether they are voters.
“It really does depend on how we view our representative democracy and if we want to essentially try and draw people who can’t vote ... out of representation,” Levinson said. “I would skew more towards the idea that we actually count the people who live here, because those people are going to be subject to a representative. It’s not like they’re just going to cease to be members of the community.”