It is important in any discussion of voting rights to remember that we do not live in a democracy; we live in a democratic representational republic. You do not get to vote on law or policy; you get to vote to pick the people who do that, and even then it is only some of them. A great majority of the kind of law we call “regulation” and nearly all judicial law, particularly at the federal level, is decided by people for (or against) whom you did not have the opportunity to vote, but who were appointed by those for (or against) whom you voted. You do not even vote for the President of the United States–you vote for the Electors in the Electoral College who pick him. The Constitution did not give citizens the right to vote for United States Senators until amended in 1913 (Amendment XVII); they were previously appointed by a means determined by each state, and many states gave this power to the elected members of state legislatures. This is important to grasp as background to the present discussion.
The Supreme Court has promulgated the concept of “one person, one vote”, which seems simple enough: it means that in any election, everyone’s vote should have equal weight in all decisions. The obvious application is that we do not give three votes to each black person, four to each white person, two to naturalized citizens, an extra vote to every woman–everyone votes once, even in Chicago.
The problem is, who is “everyone”? My granddaughter does not vote; we exclude people under a specified age. Most states also exclude some category of criminals–in New Jersey the exclusion covers everyone in prison or on parole or probation, but some states exclude anyone ever convicted of a felony. We do not permit legally resident aliens to vote; they are not citizens. So “one person, one vote” obviously does not mean exactly that. This, though, is the simple part, and if we are electing the local mayor everyone who is eligible to vote gets one vote, and chooses whether or not to use it, and we count all the votes actually cast to get our winner.
There are, however, more complicated cases, and the Supreme Court has agreed to address one. It concerns what is called redistricting. You get to vote for state and federal legislators representing your district–in New Jersey we have twelve members of the United States House of Representatives, and each represents the people in a particular geographical area; it happens that six are Democrats and the other six Republicans. We have similar districts for the members of our own State legislatures. As population shifts–more births in one area and deaths in another, urban flight, rural collapse, whatever reason–we are legally required to “redraw the lines”, equalizing the districts so that the “one person, one vote” standard continues to be met on this larger scale. That scale is, your vote should have exactly as much weight in the makeup of each legislative body as the votes of those in the next district. That means if there are a thousand voters in your district to choose one of the twelve members of that group, there must be a thousand, or near enough as to be of no practical difference, voters in every other district which chooses such a member. Redistricting, though, is highly political in nearly ever case. After all, if I have an area from which I have to make three districts and it is half Republican and half Democratic, I might be able to make one district one hundred percent Democratic and the other two two-thirds Republican, giving me two Republican representatives and one Democrat, a two-to-one advantage, representing a group that is evenly split. Of course, in that case one side or the other has to have the extra representative; but it is frequently possible to redistrict in ways that are less equitable, such as getting three Democrats and one Republican from four districts that are three-quarters Republican by putting most of the Republicans in one district and making them the minority in the other three. Thus redistricting plans advanced by partisan legislatures are almost always challenged in the courts on the grounds that they are intentionally unfair; and such challenges sometimes, but not often, win.
In the present case, though, the issue comes back to that question of who is “everyone”. Do we count “everyone”, or do we not count the children, the legal immigrant aliens, the felons who have lost their right to vote? What about the illegal aliens who live in an area but cannot vote? What about those who legally could vote but who are not registered and have no desire or intent to vote? This unbalances the power, regardless of how we decide it; and the way it is balanced might be significant–but we will have to examine it next time.