Edward Blum has been trying to take down “one person, one vote” — a tenet of modern voting rights law — since 1997. Last week brought him his biggest breakthrough yet, with the Supreme Court surprising many election law experts by taking up a redistricting case that has the potential to redefine “one person, one vote” and fundamentally alter how electoral districts are drawn nationwide.
The case also fits into Blum’s undeniably successful crusade to dismantle longstanding civil rights laws and remove race as a factor in governmental decision-making.
“That’s the bulk of the reason I pursued this,” Blum told TPM last week after the Supreme Court announced it was taking the case. “The effect that this policy has on race is surely one of the reasons I’ve been interested in it and many others have. But also a question of fairness in our democracy drove the filing of the suit.”
The case, Evenwel v. Abbott, is a challenge to Texas’ state Senate redistricting plan, in which two Texas residents are asking the Court to declare unconstitutional the use of total population to draw districts of roughly equal size. They say that because they live in a district with a relatively high ratio of eligible voters, their vote is worth less than districts that have the same total population, but fewer voters,
Experts contend that if Blum’s side prevails it will mean redrawing districts to favor older, whiter, more rural voters at the expense of younger, minority, urban ones.
The use of total population to determine “one person, one vote” is a near-universal practice nationwide for local, state and federal elections. Before last this week, the use of total population to define “one person one vote” was considered settled territory and a common practice since a 1964 Supreme Court decision establishing that districts needed to be drawn with roughly the same population. The challengers, however, object to the idea that districts should be drawn by the total number of people living in their boundaries, rather than the number of those registered or eligible to vote.
Voting rights advocates say that if the challengers get their way and states no longer have the discretion to use total population to draw districts, it will make it more difficult for officials to draw “majority-minority” districts, which group certain racial or language demographics together to enhance their ability to elect candidates of their choice.
Blum suggests that eliminating this practice is his endgame and that he believes redistricting should be about “cohesive, contiguous neighborhoods.”
“If the court clarifies the use of total population and traditional neighborhood districts get put back together, then I think most Americans including myself favor it,” Blum said.
Blum has defied the odds in his ability to get cases in front of the Supreme Court, impressing even his critics. His past successes include two blockbuster cases — both decided in 2013 — that gutted the Voting Rights Act and dealt a serious blow to affirmative admissions policies in higher ed. Previously, he also brought a gerrymandering case that prompted the invalidation of three of Texas’ majority-minority districts, as well as another Voting Rights Act challenge that laid the groundwork for the 2013 ruling.
Blum is not a lawyer. A former stockbroker and failed congressional candidate who eventually landed an unpaid fellowship at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Blum is now the one-man-band behind the public legal advocacy organization Project on Fair Representation. There he identifies an area of law that he believes deserves challenging, finds the right challengers to carry the suit, connects them with a law firm (in Evenwel, he’s using Consovoy McCarthy Park) and fundraises among conservative donors to finance the attorneys’ fees.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee poster, about 1963 (Smithsonian National Museum of American History Behring Center)
Blum goes to great lengths to find the type of challengers for suits against the practices he opposes. He is known to cold call local government offices or set up websites to attract students who feel they were disadvantaged by affirmative action policies.
For this case he says one of the challengers, Ed Pfenninger, was an acquaintance of his and the other, Sue Evenwel, he found by “calling around.”
Blum is also quick to point out that public advocacy groups of all stripes use targeted recruiting to find vehicles for challenges to practices they want to take on. “This is not an insidious method,” he said
Critics of the case say Evenwel is an effort to undermine the growing political power of Latinos and give those living in rural areas — who tend to lean conservative — more of an advantage at the ballot box over those in urban areas, where the portion of ineligible voters tends to be lower.
Evenwel v. Abbott is the culmination of Blum’s decades long effort to take on racially-influenced redistricting, having failed twice before with “one person, one vote” cases that stopped at the Supreme Court’s doorstep. It is expected to be heard next fall, and Blum also has two other suits — both challenging affirmative action policies in higher ed — crawling up the the judicial pipeline.
After that, Blum said he’s probably done, and perhaps civil rights advocates can breath a little more easily.
“I’m 63 years old and the two lawsuit that were filed last year will like take anywhere between two and five years to litigate, perhaps longer,” Blum said. “That will put me close to age 70 and that’s when there’ll be younger, more energetic people who will come in and embrace this topic.”