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Bresette: Include children when redrawing electoral districts

Do children count?

The U.S. Supreme Court will address this very question on Dec.8, when the justices hear oral arguments in the case Evenwel v. Abbott. This case from Texas challenges our long-standing practice of counting every person when drawing electoral districts. Today, almost all state and local jurisdictions in America draw districts based on total population. That way, elected leaders represent equal numbers of people in each district.

In this particular case, however, the plaintiffs want to require that Texas districts be drawn counting only the voting population, not the total population.

This requirement is problematic because it upends what representative democracy means in America.

First, counting only voters excludes a significant population, namely children under age 18. Children represent the largest group of nonvoters that would be affected, and areas with high numbers of children would see dramatically reduced representation. Though children can’t vote, they are indeed people, and have a vital stake in the affairs of our nation. For this reason, the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas, our national office and state affiliates filed an amicus brief in the case. In it, we urge the Supreme Court to dismiss this effort to undermine voting rights and representation and to ensure equal protection for those not yet old enough to vote.

Not only is this case a direct attack on the “one person, one vote” principle enshrined by the 14th Amendment, it is an affront to the fundamental democratic principle that elected officials represent all people in their jurisdiction, not just those who voted for them. Among those most in need of a voice are the 75 million children in this country. Texas alone has nearly 7 million residents younger than 18 — more than a quarter of our total population — and 96 percent are native-born residents.

Second, another problem with ignoring such a substantial share of the population when designing legislative districts is that, in Texas, and in many states, the child population is concentrated in certain areas. For example, there are significant variations in child population as a percentage of total population in Texas Senate districts, ranging from 23 percent in some rural areas to 30 percent and more in some cities, suburbs and in the Rio Grande Valley.

Excluding children would result in dramatic shifts in representation away from regions with higher child populations — areas that need as many voices as possible in the Capitol because they have the greatest need for adequate resources, programs and services. Two decades of research tells us that the status of children is directly linked to the level of public investment they receive. In Texas, a state that consistently ranks near the bottom in measures of child well-being, children’s concerns need more – not less – weight in state policy and budgeting decisions.

Third, excluding children is problematic because legislative redistricting plans are revised only once every 10 years. Consequently, significant numbers of residents who are underage at the time of redistricting will become eligible voters over the decade. Over time, this creates growing imbalances in how areas are represented. In Texas, roughly three million children between 9 and 17 years old will become voting age over a 10 year period.

This case is about our ability to have a legislature that represents all people equally — and the foreseeable, negative consequences of declaring that children “don’t count.” Both the State of Texas and the Obama administration defend the current, long-standing approach of counting everyone. Texas, for good reason, has chosen to define the “people” entitled to equal representation to include children. The Supreme Court should uphold its power to do so, reject this radical proposal, and reaffirm that children do indeed count and should be counted.

Patrick Bresette is executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas. Read the CDF amicus brief here.

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