I wrote back in 2003:
UCLA sociologist Roger Waldinger observed, “Heavy immigrant densities make the Mexican-American districts into rotten boroughs, where only a small proportion of the adult population votes, a situation that does little to encourage electoral competition or mobilization.” (The term “rotten borough” comes from 18th and 19th-Century British politics, a time when some Parliamentary districts notoriously held but a literal handful of voters.)
The rotten borough effect is also visible in California’s congressional elections. For example, in the luxurious Hollywood Hills, in congressional District 30 where 8 percent of the population is Hispanic, veteran Beverly Hills Democrat Henry Waxman won re-election last November in a race in which all the candidates combined drew 184,000 votes. In distinct contrast, in nearby congressional District 31, a 70-percent Hispanic area that includes East L.A., Democrat Xavier Becerra gained another term in a contest in which 67,000 voters showed up.
This interpretation of the law that creates Hispanic rotten boroughs is not without its critics. In the majority opinion of the 1998 7th Circuit federal case “Barnett vs. City of Chicago,” Judge Richard A. Posner ruled, “We think that citizen voting-age population is the basis for determining equality of voting power that best comports with the policy of the (Voting Rights) statute. … The dignity and very concept of citizenship are diluted if non-citizens are allowed to vote either directly or by the conferral of additional voting power on citizens believed to have a community of interest with the non-citizens.”
That decision applies only to three Midwestern states, however. The Supreme Court has yet to rule definitively on the issue.
From today’s New York Times:
By ADAM LIPTAK MAY 26, 2015
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to hear a case that will answer a long-contested question about a bedrock principle of the American political system: the meaning of “one person one vote.”
Obviously, we don’t give one vote to one person — or at least not yet we don’t let anybody who sneaks into the country vote. But we typically count them for drawing up state legislator and House districts, which seems like an oversight from the Warren Court’s era of low immigration.
The court’s ruling, expected in 2016, could be immensely consequential. Should the court agree with the two Texas voters who brought the case, its ruling would shift political power from cities to rural areas, a move that would benefit Republicans.
The court has never resolved whether voting districts should have the same number of people, or the same number of eligible voters. Counting all people amplifies the voting power of places with large numbers of residents who cannot vote legally, including immigrants who are here legally but are not citizens, illegal immigrants, children and prisoners. Those places tend to be urban and to vote Democratic.
It doesn’t always work that way. A lot of Republican-leaning districts in inland California used to benefit from having a lot of ineligible Hispanics counted in drawing up the district: e.g., Sonny Bono’s widow in Palm Springs. But Mary Bono lost to a Latino in 2012. Thus, it’s not a winning strategy for Republicans in the long term.
Also, there are several potential intermediate levels between counting everybody, whether here legally or illegally, and counting only eligible voters. For example, as Judge Posner suggests, you could count all voting age American citizens (including felons who have lost their voting rights since they are still our fellow American citizens). Or you could count legal immigrants as well.
The bottom line is that the current system of counting illegal immigrants is absurd, while other alternatives are least arguable.