Affirmative Action for Rural America?

06/02/2015 08:01 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

At the center of Evenwel v. Abbott is a math problem: How do we calculate the size of legislative districts? The answer to that question depends on how we define the principle of "one person, one vote."

I'm talking about the case from, yes, Texas, that last week the Supreme Court agreed to consider. Should the plaintiffs win this case, the result would have much broader geographic implications, implications for the whole nation. In point of fact, victory here would amount to a kind of affirmative action program for country folks. Here's why.

The principle of "one person, one vote" is relatively recent in our jurisprudence, established only in 1964, when the Court ruled 8-1 in Reynolds v. Sims. At issue in that case was exactly how in our system of representative democracy representation would be calculated. Reynolds issued from Alabama, where the city of Birmingham had proportionally far fewer representatives in the Montgomery capitol than rural areas of the state did.

The problem was not unique to Alabama. At the time the Court heard the case, for example, 14,000 residents of an agricultural California county were represented in Sacramento by one state senator. The 6 million residents of the city of Los Angeles also had only one. And so it went around the country in the same pattern: cities got short-changed, while rural parts of the states got more than their share of representatives.

In its ruling, the Court insisted on a different math. The 8-member majority argued that the principle of "one person, one vote" demanded that districts contain roughly the same number of people, thereby guaranteeing that each person would be represented equally in state legislatures. The same year, in Wesberry v. Sanders the Court applied that logic to U. S. Congressional districting as well.

With these rulings, the Court shifted the ground on how places and populations were given legislative voice. The Court took for granted that the number of legislative districts would be divided into each state's population as counted by the Census Bureau. As a result, they thought, each district would be drawn to contain roughly the same number of people.

So things have stood for 50 years, until this case from Texas.

The plaintiffs in Evenwel argue that districts should reflect the population only of eligible voters, not everyone who lives there. In their view, many actual people should not be counted toward the size of legislative districts, including non-citizen immigrants and resident aliens, children, and in some states convicted criminals. More of those types of people tend to reside in cities. And thus the legislative power of urban areas would be diminished.

The first, most obvious, and entirely intended result, should the plaintiffs win, would be to shift electoral weight away from the nation's cities and metropolitan regions and back to its more sparsely inhabited rural areas. The plaintiffs are attempting to restore political power to those regions, despite the fact that a shrinking minority of Americans actually live in them.

Americans have long harbored deep misgivings about their cities. Thomas Jefferson most famously imagined the United States as a nation of small, independent farmers. Cities bred corruption, went the 18th century view of things, and the only way to preserve the virtue of the new republic was to keep Americans down on the farm.

The Constitution itself codified this anti-urban bias by creating a Senate where representation is divorced entirely from population size. Rural Wyoming, with fewer than 600,000 people, elects two US Senators (roughly 1 per 300,000 residents) while nearly 40 million highly urbanized Californians also get two Senators (roughly 1 per 20 million people).

As appealing as Jefferson's vision remains in the American mythos - bucolic family farms away from the hustle and bustle of the city grind - in practice Americans have largely ignored Jefferson's admonitions. Americans admired Jefferson but they didn't really listen to him. Across the 19th century they left the land to move to the cities. In fact, the decade which saw the largest percentage increase in urban growth in our history was the 1830s.

By the end of the 19th century the industrial economy outpaced the agricultural economy, and more and more people poured into urban centers. And yet political representation, at the state and federal level, did not reflect this huge demographic shift. In order to ensure that rural areas would remain disproportionately represented, politicians often simply didn't bother to re-draw legislative district boundaries. In 1960, for example, the districts in Illinois had not been re-drawn since 1900, never mind that a majority of all Illinoisans were living in Chicago's Cook County by that point.

Our system of representative democracy is place-based. We vote for our representatives situated in specific geographical areas. Through the Court rulings of the 1960s, representation came more into line with the places Americans actually live.

Today, roughly 70 percent of us live in metropolitan areas of 500,000+ people, and there is no indication that this trend (which began in the 19th century) is going to abate in the 21st. Those areas function as the nation's economic engines, the centers of our cultural and intellectual life, and they remain the places of greatest opportunity for the young, for the ambitious, and for new immigrants.

Should the plaintiffs prevail in Evenwel v. Abbott, they will successfully cause a considerable number of these metropolites to vanish for purposes of political representation through a legal sleight of hand. Of course, the people themselves will not disappear, nor will the contributions they make to our society, or the demands they place on it. Evenwel v. Abbott is an attempt to stack the political deck in favor of rural America at the expense of the rest of us.

Steven Conn, the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, is the author of Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century (Oxford University Press).