Ethan Herenstein


The Penalty Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Consistency on Universal Representation

Ethan Herenstein, Yurij Rudensky

Many judges and scholars have read Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment as evidence of the Constitution’s commitment to universal representation—the idea that representation should be afforded to everyone in the political community regardless of whether they happen to be eligible to vote. Typically, this analysis starts and stops with Section 2’s first clause, the Apportionment Clause, which provides that congressional seats are to be apportioned among the states on the basis of “the whole number of persons in each State.” Partly for this reason, the Supreme Court’s lead opinion in Evenwel v. Abbott rejected the argument that “One Person, One Vote” requires states to equalize the number of adult citizens when drawing legislative districts, affirming that states can draw districts with equal numbers of persons.

But skeptics of the universal representation theory of the Fourteenth Amendment, most notably Justice Alito, have complained that this analysis is flawed because it ignores Section 2’s less-known and never-enforced second clause: the Penalty Clause. Under the Penalty Clause, states that deny or abridge otherwise qualified citizens’ right to vote are penalized with a reduction of their congressional representation. Any theory of representation drawn from the Fourteenth Amendment, the skeptics argue, must grapple with all of Section 2.

This Article takes up that call and explains how the Penalty Clause is not only consistent with but also reinforces the Fourteenth Amendment’s broader commitment to universal representation. Contrary to common misconceptions about the Penalty Clause, the Clause is structured so that the state as a whole loses representation in Congress, but no individual within the state is denied representation. In other words, the Penalty Clause does not operate by subtracting those wrongfully disenfranchised from a state’s total population prior to congressional apportionment. Rather, it imposes a proportional reduction derived from the percent of the vote-eligible population denied the vote that is scaled to an offending state’s total population. The Penalty Clause thus does nothing to upend Section 2’s advancement of universal representation. If anything, the Penalty Clause actually reinforces Section 2’s commitment to that idea. By reducing a state’s representation proportionally, it contemplates the representational interests of nonvoters, a key feature of the universal representation theory.