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Why Some Votes Count More Than Others

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Why Some Votes Count More Than Others

Democratic attacks on Trump’s census proposals ignore the problems caused by drawing congressional districts according to residents, not citizens. July 26, 2022
Politics and law

Democrats refuse to give up on the idea that the Trump administration’s push to change the Census to count the number of citizens—rather than just persons—in each congressional district was a plot to elect more Republicans. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform, chaired by Upper East Side representative Carolyn Maloney, put it this way in a report released last Wednesday: “The Trump Administration secretly tried to manipulate the census for political gain while lying to the public and Congress about their goals.”

Of course, one can’t discount the possibility that Republicans wanted to elect more of their own by manipulating how congressional districts are drawn. Both parties do this, as New York Democrats did in their failed attempt to gerrymander the state’s congressional map this year.

But Democrats wringing their hands about the fate of democracy are pretending not to notice the ways in which the current method of drawing congressional districts strongly favors their own members. If any party’s voter power is diluted, it’s that of Republicans. Many Democrats, especially congressional representatives like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, represent districts with low numbers of legal residents and thus need fewer-than-average votes to be elected. Democrats like to say that every vote must count, but they ignore a system in which some votes count more than others. 

Here’s how it works. Congressional districts are determined based on the number of residents, not the number of eligible “citizen-voters.” That means that non-citizen immigrants, both legal and illegal, get included in the count for purposes of drawing congressional districts. That wouldn’t matter if immigrants were found in equal numbers in all districts, but that’s not remotely the case.

In Ohio’s fourth congressional district, for instance—represented by conservative Republican Jim Jordan—only 2 percent of the population is foreign-born. The Census Bureau reports that it has some 543,000 eligible voters. Jordan racked up nearly 236,000 votes to win reelection in 2020.

The picture is far different in Ocasio-Cortez’s 14th New York district. There, a whopping 45 percent of residents are foreign-born—and eligible voters total only 392,000. AOC secured only about 152,000 votes to win reelection, substantially fewer than Jordan. (Both ran in safe districts.)

These are not exceptional cases. The Center for Immigration Studies has found that drawing congressional districts by population rather than number of citizens has what it calls “a partisan dimension.” Specifically, “of 16 districts where more than one in four adults is not an American citizen, only one is represented by a Republican.” These are, in other words, places where it takes fewer votes to win—and where Democrats hold the advantage.

What’s more, districts such as AOC’s suffer from what can only be called taxation without representation. She may claim to represent the interests of her district, but many of her “constituents” can’t vote.

That doesn’t mean that noncitizens should get the right to vote, as New York’s city council has proposed. Rather, it would be fairer to draw congressional districts based on the number of citizens, rather than on total population. In effect, the current system has created what the British once called “rotten boroughs”—parliamentary seats with few eligible voters, where party grandees could be safely ensconced. 

Rather than continuing to bash the late Trump administration for trying to count citizens, Democrats should be encouraging immigrants to gain the right to vote by becoming citizens, and in the process freshen up their own rotten boroughs.

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

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