An Illinois resident voting for her US senator no doubt expects that other residents of Illinois also have the same opportunity to cast votes in the election for that office. She probably also assumes that other Illinois residents would have the same stake in the outcome and the same opportunity to vote. But she likely does not expect residents of Michigan or Ohio to cast their own votes in that Illinois election. Similarly, a Chicago school district resident most likely assumes that other residents of the school district can vote in elections for that school board’s members. If, however, St. Louis or Cleveland school district residents were to cast votes in the Chicago election, that Chicago resident would likely have grave concerns.

While these are extreme examples, certain voters across the country do in fact face situations in which the voting systems utilized in their communities allow nonresidents of a jurisdiction to vote in that jurisdiction’s elections. This can occur when state legislation is implemented in a locality with unique or overlapping boundaries,1 or when certain communities allow nonresident property owners to vote in local elections.2 These residents may claim that such voting schemes unconstitutionally dilute the impact of their votes in their jurisdiction’s elections.3 The Supreme Court has proclaimed that the right to vote commands protection from this kind of dilution, noting that “[t]here is more to the right to vote than the right to mark a piece of paper and drop it in a box. . . . It also includes the right to have the vote counted at full value without dilution or discount.”4

This Comment explores the ways in which courts address these nonresident vote dilution claims. Nonresident vote dilution claims are framed as equal protection challenges; resident plaintiffs claim that when nonresidents have the right to vote, residents’ votes have less weight in violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and Supreme Court precedent.5 Although several appellate courts have grappled with these claims, they have remained largely unexplored in the legal literature.6

Two important threshold issues exist here. The first question is whether a nonresident vote dilution claim can be raised at all in the absence of an objective standard against which to measure it. The second threshold issue, always implicated by any cognizable equal protection claim, is the level of review that courts should use to assess the challenged law’s constitutionality. Government actions that potentially violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause are largely reviewed using either the more deferential rational basis standard or the more robust strict scrutiny standard, with some discrete claims receiving intermediate scrutiny.7 In individual voting rights cases, a balancing test has developed: courts decide how much scrutiny to use when reviewing a challenged scheme after balancing the burden it places on an individual’s right and the countervailing state interest used to justify it.8

Nonresident vote dilution claims present unique issues for this framework, as vote dilution is often framed as an aggregate, rather than an individual, burden.9 This balancing test can therefore be an uncomfortable fit for allegedly dilutive practices, and the tiers of scrutiny used in earlier cases remain important for considering such claims. The constitutional review used by a court matters: Heightened scrutiny in all instances would likely lead to disenfranchisement of nonresidents because this standard is often considered “fatal in fact.”10 If more deferential rational basis review were used instead, these voting schemes would likely be left in place.11

Currently, circuits are in discord as to the appropriate stan-dard of review for these claims, and the Supreme Court has not provided any guidance on the issue. The Fourth Circuit applies strict scrutiny in the nonresident vote dilution context.12 Most other circuits, however, use a form of rational basis review that specifically measures rationality by the “substantial interest” that nonresidents have in the relevant election; if no substantial interest exists, the nonresident enfranchisement is considered irrational.13 This Comment attempts to resolve that split.

Part I first explores the general background of the “one person, one vote” principle against vote dilution and its application by the Supreme Court. It then considers the traditional framework used to review claims that government actions violate the Equal Protection Clause and how that framework has been applied in the specific context of election regulations. Part II sets out the circuits’ approaches to the review of nonresident vote dilution claims. Part III attempts to resolve the existing split in authority: it reframes the issues at stake and considers them in tandem with similar claims of nonresident disenfranchisement. This final Part argues that, without a proper benchmark against which to mea-sure these nonresident vote dilution claims, decisions about enfranchisement in this arena should be left to the legislature. It then argues that, if courts do reach the merits of these claims, rational basis review aligns with the voting rights framework that the Supreme Court has established in other contexts. It also resolves an inherent tension in the form of rational basis review that most circuits currently deploy—a tension that exists because the factors used to assess rationality seem to contradict each other—by proposing that circuits reframe their inquiry to focus on the interconnectedness of resident and nonresident voter communities.

  • 1. See, for example, Locklear v North Carolina State Board of Elections, 514 F2d 1152, 1153–54 & n 4 (4th Cir 1975) (explaining how state legislation creating school board elections was implemented in one county such that nonresidents of the rural county school district could vote for some of that district’s board members).
  • 2. See, for example, May v Town of Mountain Village, 132 F3d 576, 578–79 (10th Cir 1997) (describing how the town’s charter extended the franchise to both residents and nonresident owners of real property located within the town).
  • 3. See, for example, Locklear, 514 F2d at 1153. See also Part II.
  • 4. Reynolds v Sims, 377 US 533, 555 n 29 (1964).
  • 5. See, for example, May, 132 F3d at 577, 580.
  • 6. For some exceptions, see Richard Briffault, Who Rules at Home?: One Person/One Vote and Local Governments, 60 U Chi L Rev 339, 396–401 (1993) (discussing nonresident vote dilution cases within the larger context of election law’s application to local governments); Gerald L. Neuman, “We Are the People”: Alien Suffrage in German and American Perspective, 13 Mich J Intl L 259, 317–22 (1992) (discussing nonresident vote dilution cases in a larger discussion of the construction of political boundaries); Note, State Restrictions on Municipal Elections: An Equal Protection Analysis, 93 Harv L Rev 1491, 1498–1501, 1507–08 (1980) (discussing the equal protection ramifications of nonresident vote dilution cases and advocating for a reduced focus on the level of constitutional review in this sphere).
  • 7. See Part I.D.1. Intermediate scrutiny is generally reserved for claims of gender discrimination. See text accompanying notes 86–88.
  • 8. See Part I.D.2.
  • 9. See notes 24–25 and accompanying text.
  • 10. Gerald Gunther, The Supreme Court, 1971 Term—Foreword: In Search of Evolving Doctrine on a Changing Court; A Model for a Newer Equal Protection, 86 Harv L Rev 1, 8 (1972).
  • 11. See Kenji Yoshino, Why the Court Can Strike Down Marriage Restrictions under Rational-Basis Review, 37 NYU Rev L & Soc Change 331, 333 (2013) (describing rational basis review as a “free pass for legislation”).
  • 12. See Part II.A.
  • 13. See Part II.B.