5 minute read



Guaranteeing an individual the right to vote does not necessarily mean that the voters in a particular district have the same voting strength as voters in another district. Since the 1960s, however, the implementation of the concept of one person, one vote has meant that unreasonable disparities in voting strength have been eliminated. Nevertheless, racially discriminatory dilutions of voting strength have led the federal courts to become intimately involved in the drawing of election districts.

One Person, One Vote The Supreme Court, in REYNOLDS V. SIMS, 377 U.S. 533, 84 S. Ct. 1362, 12 L. Ed. 2d 506 (1964), established the principle of "one person, one vote" based on the EQUAL PROTECTION Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision resulted in almost every state's redrawing its legislative districts and in the shifting of power from rural to urban areas. All subsequent CONSTITUTIONAL LAW on APPORTIONMENT has relied on the principles established in Reynolds.

Until the Reynolds decision, most state legislatures gave more seats to sparsely populated rural areas than to heavily populated urban areas. Because rural legislators controlled the legislature and had a vested interest in perpetuating this apportionment scheme, legislative change had proved impossible. In Reynolds the Supreme Court concluded that to permit the minority to have power over the majority would be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The dilution of the weight of a person's vote because of where that person lives qualified as invidious discrimination, just as if the decision had been based on that person's race or financial status. Therefore, the Court required that "each citizen have an equally effective voice in the election of members of his state legislature."

Racially Discriminatory Apportionment The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave the courts the right to review racially discriminatory election districts. The federal courts have struck down at-large elections, in which a number of officials are chosen to represent the district, as opposed to an arrangement under which each of the officials represents one smaller district or ward. Southern cities where whites were in the majority used the at-large election system to perpetuate all-white rule. Courts have required the creation of smaller wards or districts that give African Americans and other protected groups a reasonable opportunity to elect a person of color to city council.

Racial Gerrymandering The courts have also tackled the issue of racial gerrymandering, which is the intentional manipulation of legislative districts for political purposes. In these cases, districts have been drawn in bizarre shapes to include or exclude voters of a particular race.

In early cases white politicians gerrymandered districts to prevent African Americans from having any voting strength. In the 1990s, the debate moved to the legitimacy of creating, under the authority of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, unusually shaped congressional districts to ensure that they contained a majority of minority voters. The perceived hope was that minority unity would lead to the elections of persons of color. The Supreme Court, in SHAW V. HUNT, 517 U.S. 899, 116 S. Ct. 1894, 135 L. Ed. 2d 207 (1996), ruled that the redrawing of a North Carolina congressional district into a "bizarre-looking" shape in order to include a majority of African Americans could not be justified by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR found it "unsettling how closely the North Carolina plan resembles the most egregious racial gerrymandering of the past." O'Connor agreed that prior cases had never made race-conscious redistricting "impermissible in all circumstances," yet agreed with the white plaintiffs that the redistricting was "so extremely irregular on its face that it rationally can be viewed only as an effort to segregate races for purposes of voting, without regard for traditional districting principles and without sufficiently compelling justification."

The Supreme Court continued its review of allegedly racially gerrymandered districts in Abrams v. Johnson, 521 U.S. 74, 117 S.Ct. 1925, 138 L.Ed.2d 285 (1997). The Court upheld a legislative redistricting plan that reduced from three to one the number of majority-black congressional districts in Georgia. The Court supported the district court's decision not to preserve three majority-black districts because the area's African American population was not sufficiently compact to sustain three, or even two, districts. According to the ruling, drawing multiple districts would have resulted in racial gerrymandering. The Court also ruled that the plan's creation of only one majority-black district would not violate the Voting Rights Act by causing retrogression in the political position of African American citizens. It noted that in the 1992 elections, held under the challenged plan, all three African American incumbents won reelection, two of whom while running against white candidates from majority-white districts. This confirmed for the Court that the plan was not discriminatory.

In Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board, 528 U.S. 320, 120 S.Ct. 866, 145 L.Ed.2d 845 (2000), the Supreme Court effectively resolved the relationship between Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 applies to all 50 states, while Section 5 applies to seven southern states (including Louisiana) that had used poll taxes, literacy tests, and other devices to obstruct registration by African Americans. The Court ruled that a redistricting plan may be precleared under Section 5, even if the proposed plan might seemingly violate Section 2. As a result, the Court reversed 25 years of federal policy by limiting the power of the Justice Department to block proposed redistricting changes for state and local elections.

African American citizens of Bossier Parish, Louisiana, objected to a redistricting plan drawn up by the Bossier Parish School Board, which had been precleared under Section 5 by the Justice Department. They argued that Section 2 barred the plan because it denied the creation of several majority-black districts. When it was supplied with evidence of possible discrimination and an alternative redistricting plan by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Justice Department moved to block the original preclearance. The school board challenged the decision before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court held that Section 5 was intended by Congress to prevent backsliding by states that had a history of past voter discrimination. As long as the new plan did not increase the degree of discrimination (which they felt it did not), it was not retrogressive, and therefore was entitled to Section 5 preclearance.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Vest to Water RightsVoting - The Growth Of Enfranchisement, Attempts At Disenfranchisement, Rock The Vote And Motor Voter, Voting Reforms