By Chris Satullo
Everyone counts. So everyone deserves to be counted. When people speak of the sacred principles on which America is supposed to operate, these simple statements sit close to the core.
All “men” are created equal, the document that founded our nation says.
Today, the notion of “one person, one vote” — in other words, that every eligible citizen should have an absolutely equal say in how our democracy works — is rooted firmly in our Constitution.
Simple statements, clear in intent, but complicated and shadowed with failure in practice.
Here’s a fact that points to the complexity:
“One person, one vote” was not recognized explicitly as a constitutional principle until two court cases in the early 1960s - Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims. Yes, that’s right, the Sixties of the 20th century. Pretty late in the game.
What triggered this belated statement of a principle that most of us were taught was essential to how our nation works?
Well, it comes perhaps as no surprise that gerrymandering played a big role.
Gerrymanders do 'see color'
Before those court cases, across America, congressional and state legislative districts often varied widely in population, sometimes by as much as a million people. This evolved for a number of reasons, but one of them clearly was racism.
Packing African-American voters into larger districts served to dilute the power of the vote of any one black citizen living in such a district. Meanwhile, a white voter living in smaller districts exercised an outsized say over the composition of his state’s legislature and congressional delegation.
Those two landmark rulings by the Warren Court outlawed that practice, though the debate over how the courts should enforce those principles in practice continues to this day, with a series of cases about “racial gerrymandering” reaching the very different Roberts Court in recent years. (These are different from the cases alleging "partisan gerrymandering" that the court said in June it would no longer review.)
Five/fifths of shame
For African-American citizens, the painful spectre of “three/fifths of a person” hovers over the whole conversation. The original U.S. Constitution declared that many of their ancestors were to be counted in that insulting way by the original U.S. Census - an historical indignity that is hard to forget.
Today, the questions of “Do I count?” and “Will I be counted?” remain vivid in communities of color.
An urgent focal point of this conversation is the U.S. Census that will be conducted this year, in the extraordinarily difficult context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Under our system of government, we have long known that those who aren’t counted don’t count for purposes of drawing legislative districts and distributing federal dollars,” Bradford Berry, general counsel of the NACCP, wrote recently in the Washington Post. “But the risks tied to the 2020 survey are especially worrisome.”
A reason to hide?
Diverse communities with high minority and immigrant populations worry about just how hard, given the policies and rhetoric of the current administration, the Census plans to work to make sure all Americans are counted.
For example, they note that for the first time since the 1950 count, the Commerce Department, which runs the Census Bureau, had wanted to ask respondents whether they are U.S. citizens - which they fear will intimidate non-citizens from taking part in the survey. On the same day last year that the Roberts Court essentially punted on gerrymandering (again), it did please voting rights advocates by ruling that the Commerce Department had not come up with a good reason to ask that question.
In the modern world, issues intertwine in complicated ways.
So it is that any reform to political redistricting in Pennsylvania, no matter how well-conceived, could see its good effects diminished by a faulty Census.
For redistricting reform to be truly effective, the Census has to do its constitutionally mandated job well inside the Commonwealth’s diverse cities, from Erie to Pittsburgh to Harrisburg to Chester to Allentown to Scranton to Philadelphia.
For your vote to count as fully as the law intends, you first have to be counted by the Census.
Note: This article was originally part of Draw the Lines' Gerrymandering 101 package.