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Voting Rights


An issue taken up by the courts indirectly related to voting rights is representation. The point of voting is to allow people the opportunity to have their interests represented in a governing assembly. If the district lines in which one votes were drawn such that a certain group of voters was deliberately outnumbered, exercising the "right to vote" would be a moot point. The election of members of the House of Representatives is based on population. The Constitution granted a number of representatives to each state on the basis of population (originally one representative per 30,000 people.) Congress later passed a law limiting the number of House members to 435. The practice of redistricting has been a difficult matter to resolve in American history if only for the simple reason that the government cannot regulate where people live. For example, if there happens to be a high concentration of African Americans in a certain district the chances are good that a representative sympathetic to the political persuasion of African Americans will be elected. However, because there is no constitutional provision designed to regulate "gerrymandering," or the unfair drawing of district lines, this practice can be easily abused. Although the issue of drawing district lines was left to the states, blatant abuses of the criteria for drawing district lines to favor a certain group have stimulated legal debate.

In Colegrove v. Green (1946) the Court expressed strong reservations about becoming involved in redistricting and reapportionment matters. However, over time it became clear that as much as the Court preferred the issue to be resolved by the states they could not be trusted to do so equitably. In Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960) a group of African Americans challenged an Alabama statute that redrew district lines to radically improve Lightfoot's prospects for reelection. The Alabama statute had redrawn the district lines of Tuskegee such that all but four or five out of 400 African American voters were displaced into a different district. The Supreme Court ruled that the statute had essentially denied the right of black voters guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment. In subsequent cases such as Baker v. Carr (1962) and Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) the Court ultimately resolved that judicial intervention into state political affairs relating to reapportionment and redistricting respectively, was warranted.

The health of a representative democracy is dependent upon the political expression of its subjects. It is difficult to characterize a nation as democratic when over 50 percent of the population is denied the right to vote. Fortunately, Americans have had legal recourse to expand suffrage to the entire adult population. As the above outline of the legal history of voting rights illustrates the right to vote for women and minorities has not come easily.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesVoting Rights - Voting In A Democracy, State Powers, Discriminatory Practices, Courts Try To Strike Back, Representation