Supreme Court Requires Population to Determine Voting Districts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In a series of cases over a two-year period, the U.S. Supreme Court issued decisions requiring election districts to be determined by population. The decisions affirmed the principle that each voter in the United States should have comparable power by ensuring that each voter represented roughly the same percentage of a congressional representative’s constituency.

Summary of Event

Among the many profound changes ushered in by the twentieth century, none has had a more far-reaching effect on U.S. society than urbanization Urbanization;political impact . The United States has not always adjusted well to the changes wrought by urbanization. This has been especially true in the area of democratic political representation in the various states. By 1960, there were flagrant examples of malapportionment in the majority of states, both in state legislatures and in delegations to the U.S. House of Representatives. Incumbent state legislatures, dominated by rural elements, had refused to reapportion representation to reflect population shifts accurately; to do so would have strengthened urban areas at the expense of the rural groups in control. Delaware, for example, had not reapportioned its legislature since 1897; Tennessee and Alabama had not done so since 1901. These were only the worst cases. In all but six states, less than 40 percent of the population could elect a majority of the legislature. Supreme Court, U.S.;reapportionment Reapportionment Cases (1962-1964) Baker v. Carr (1962) Gray v. Sanders (1963) Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) Reynolds v. Sims (1964) Voting rights;representation by population Reapportionment, political Democracy [kw]Supreme Court Requires Population to Determine Voting Districts (Mar. 26, 1962-Feb. 17, 1964) [kw]Population to Determine Voting Districts, Supreme Court Requires (Mar. 26, 1962-Feb. 17, 1964) [kw]Voting Districts, Supreme Court Requires Population to Determine (Mar. 26, 1962-Feb. 17, 1964) Supreme Court, U.S.;reapportionment Reapportionment Cases (1962-1964) Baker v. Carr (1962) Gray v. Sanders (1963) Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) Reynolds v. Sims (1964) Voting rights;representation by population Reapportionment, political Democracy [g]North America;Mar. 26, 1962-Feb. 17, 1964: Supreme Court Requires Population to Determine Voting Districts[07250] [g]United States;Mar. 26, 1962-Feb. 17, 1964: Supreme Court Requires Population to Determine Voting Districts[07250] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 26, 1962-Feb. 17, 1964: Supreme Court Requires Population to Determine Voting Districts[07250] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 26, 1962-Feb. 17, 1964: Supreme Court Requires Population to Determine Voting Districts[07250] Cox, Archibald Douglas, William O. Frankfurter, Felix Harlan, John M., II Warren, Earl

State legislatures frequently ignored provisions in their state constitutions that required periodic reapportionment on the basis of the decennial census. Such a situation imperiled the very basis of democracy. Yet the Supreme Court, prior to 1962, had refused to intervene on the grounds that apportionment was a political question and thus outside the jurisdiction of the Court. This dictum had been handed down in the case Colegrove v. Green (1946) Colegrove v. Green (1946) . The resulting malapportionment has been likened to the eighteenth century English “rotten boroughs.”

In 1962, the Court finally abandoned its unwillingness to act on the matter of apportionment and took a strong stand in favor of democratic representation in Baker v. Carr, a case challenging the apportionment of the Tennessee state legislature. The Tennessee state constitution called for reapportionment every ten years, although none had taken place since 1901. As a result, urban areas were greatly underrepresented in the legislature, while rural areas were overrepresented. Moore County, with a population of 3,454, elected one legislator, while Shelby County (which includes Memphis), with a population of 627,019, elected only three. The inequities were starkly evident.

The federal district court in Tennessee, in which suit had been filed originally, refused to take action on the basis of the precedent established in Colegrove v. Green. When the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, however, that body ruled by a six-to-two margin that the Tennessee case was justiciable and returned it to the lower court for a decision. With this decision, issued on March 26, 1962, political reformers finally had realized their aim: The Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, had agreed to deal with the problem of equitable apportionment of representation, although it had made no actual decision on the subject. Justices Felix Frankfurter and John M. Harlan II dissented in Baker v. Carr, again arguing that apportionment was a political question and therefore not within the Court’s jurisdiction.

As a result of Baker v. Carr, a spate of litigation and legislation regarding apportionment followed. By the end of 1963, federal suits had been filed in thirty-one states and state suits in nineteen others. During that same period, twenty-six states adopted new legislative apportionment plans. Nevertheless, these plans did not always satisfy political reformers. The plans varied greatly in intent and effect, because the Court had not actually ruled on apportionment and therefore had not established guidelines for the states to follow.

Chief Justice Earl Warren.

(Library of Congress)

This confusion over the Court’s views was partially remedied in March of 1963, when Gray v. Sanders struck down Georgia’s so-called county unit rule. That rule assigned a certain number of units, or votes, to each county in elections for statewide offices and operated in a manner similar to the federal electoral college. The result of the county unit rule was severe discrimination against voters in the more populous areas. The Court ruled eight to one, Justice Harlan dissenting, that the Georgia system violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution, and Justice William O. Douglas, in writing the majority opinion, used the momentous phrase “one man, one vote.” Again, the Court had not ruled directly on the question of apportionment, but it had given a broad hint as to what it expected.

Gray v. Sanders foreshadowed Wesberry v. Sanders, a landmark case decided on February 17, 1964, in which the Court used the “one man, one vote” principle to void a 1931 Georgia congressional apportionment law. Justice Harlan again dissented, contending that the Court was intruding upon the proper province of Congress. The Court, however, was now clearly committed to guaranteeing equitable apportionment and democratic representation in the United States House of Representatives as well as in state legislatures. Later in 1964, the Court further delineated its standards in six cases involving Alabama, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and Colorado.

The cases in Alabama and New York were particularly important, because, in addition to rural-urban issues, they also presented strong race issues. As cities such as Birmingham and New York grew after World War I, their most densely populated sections became predominantly African American. Not only was the “one man, one vote” ideal not being met, but racial minorities also were grossly underrepresented. In Alabama, Reynolds v. Sims (1964) challenged apportionment policies set up in 1901, when the state constitution was designed to preserve rule by white, conservative Democrats. The New York case of WMCA v. Lomenzo WMCA v. Lomenzo (1965) received national attention when New York City radio station WMCA decided early in 1961 to begin challenging state apportionment policies outlined in the state constitution of 1894. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of reapportionment in the WMCA case on June 1, 1965; Justice Harlan again dissented.


One effect of these decisions was to create a movement for a remedial constitutional amendment in Congress—a movement that failed, as did a vigorous effort to call a federal constitutional convention to consider apportionment. The Court had served notice that malapportionment would not be tolerated, and in 1967 it reaffirmed its endorsement of the “one man, one vote” principle in Swan v. Adams. Swan v. Adams (1967) From that point onward, it became an established constitutional precedent that each congressional district must contain roughly the same number of potential voters such that each member of the House of Representatives is answerable to roughly the same number of constituents. Supreme Court, U.S.;reapportionment Reapportionment Cases (1962-1964) Baker v. Carr (1962) Gray v. Sanders (1963) Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) Reynolds v. Sims (1964) Voting rights;representation by population Reapportionment, political Democracy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ball, Howard. The Warren Court’s Conceptions of Democracy: An Evaluation of the Supreme Court’s Apportionment Opinions. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971. Explores the political dynamics within the Supreme Court and the effects they had on the outcomes of apportionment cases. Particularly interesting are Ball’s discussions of Justice Harlan’s dissenting opinions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buchman, Jeremy. Drawing Lines in Quicksand: Courts, Legislatures, and Redistricting. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. A study of the Supreme Court reapportionment decisions, responses by legislatures and commissions, and the state of political redistricting in the early twenty-first century. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cortner, Richard C. The Apportionment Cases. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1970. Explores the genesis and impact of the apportionment cases, paying particular attention to Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, Gene. One Man, One Vote: “Baker v. Carr” and the American Levellers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972. Follows the Baker v. Carr case from its beginnings, through its effects on other apportionment cases, to its residual impact a decade after the decision.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Calvin B. T. One Man, One Vote: WMCA and the Struggle for Equal Representation. New York: Scribner, 1967. This in-depth study follows the WMCA v. Lomenzo case from the radio station’s first decision to fight apportionment in 1961 to the Supreme Court decision on June 1, 1965. Much discussion of the dissenting arguments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maveety, Nancy. Representation and the Burger Years. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. Examines the impact of reapportionment after twenty-five years. Particularly examines the post-1965 debate over group rights versus individual rights in regard to representation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Rourke, Timothy G. The Impact of Reapportionment. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1980. Charts the effects of reapportionment on elections in legislative districts in Delaware, Kansas, New Jersey, Oregon, South Dakota, and Tennessee.

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Categories: History