With post-2020 Census redistricting battles and apportionment fights on the horizon, it is useful to explore the little-known yet cautionary tale of citizen-only apportionment schemes in American history. While this past reveals that anti-alien apportionment proposals can be — and have been — defeated, it also warns that if adopted by state governments (and found to be constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court), such policies will likely carry significant weight and prove hard to repeal for years to come.
Frequently tied to other provisions circumscribing the power of marginalized communities in state politics, measures excluding noncitizens from the population for the purposes of apportionment date to the early republic. New York barred noncitizens — alongside free blacks and paupers — from the state’s apportionment basis following its 1821 constitutional convention.
Decades later, Henry Gardner, the anti-Catholic Know Nothing governor of Massachusetts, successfully campaigned for an anti-alien apportionment state constitutional amendment in 1857 during a period of intense anti-Irish nativism. Delegates to California’s 1878-1879 constitutional convention forbade “aliens ineligible to citizenship” (namely East and South Asian immigrants) from the state’s apportionment basis at an assembly dominated by the violently racist anti-Chinese Workingmen’s Party. And Nebraska excluded noncitizens from state legislative apportionment calculations amid a flurry of anti-German legislation, constitutional revision and vigilantism during and immediately after World War I.