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Chapter 14: Establishing Equality in Voting and Representation

Baker v. Carr (1962), Reynolds v. Sims (1964)

Representative democracy has deep roots in the United States. It is based on free, fair, competitive, and periodic elections by which citizens vote to choose their representatives in government. These representatives of the people—chosen by a majority, or a plurality, of the voters— serve the interests and needs of their constituents. When the people’s representatives make decisions and otherwise carry out their duties in the government, there is an expectation of accountability. If they do not satisfy the citizens they represent, then most voters are likely to cast their ballots for someone else or for another political party in the next election.

Given the centrality of the electoral process in a representative democracy, the right to vote is the citizen’s most precious political possession. By using the vote responsibly, citizens can contribute significantly to the achievement of good government.

But what if some votes count more than others? Can there be an authentic representative democracy if equal representation of constituents is not achieved through the electoral process? Can government be fair, if the interests of some groups of voters have more weight than those of less privileged groups in the decisions of their representatives?

Public concern about questions of equality in voting, and in the representation of voters, led to a series of notable cases at the Supreme Court. The first of these cases, Baker v. Carr in 1962, and the last, Reynolds v. Sims in 1964, yielded the pivotal decisions that established, once and for all, the fundamental democratic principle of “one person, one vote” also with regard to Congressional elections.

These Supreme Court decisions were made in response to unequal representation in state governments and disparate voting power of citizens residing in different places within the states. When each legislator represents an electoral district with approximately the same number of people, then the voting power of the people in all districts of the state is roughly equal. But this kind of equality in representation and voting power was nonexistent in most parts of the country. This inequity developed during the first half of the twentieth century when the distribution of the nation’s population changed.

Representation of voters in state governments throughout the United States became more and more unequal due to mass movements of people from rural to urban residences. During the 1920s, for the first time in American history, more people were living in cities than in rural areas, but in most states, the government had not changed the legislative districts to reflect this dramatic change. The result was disproportionate voting power for people living in underpopulated and overrepresented rural districts.

In 1960 nearly every state had some urban legislative districts with populations that were at least twice as large as those in the state’s rural districts. In Alabama, for example, the smallest congressional district had a population of 6,700 and the largest had a population of more than 104,000; nonetheless, each district had one congressional seat. In a representative democracy, people’s votes possess equal value only when each member of the legislative body represents approximately the same number of people.

Clearly, the people in more populous urban districts and the people in the less populous rural districts were not represented equally. Consequently, city and suburban problems did not receive appropriate attention in state legislatures that were dominated by representatives from districts with many farms and small towns. The powerful rural representatives refused to redistrict in order to ensure that each member of the legislature would represent roughly the same number of people. Some simply ignored the sections of their state constitutions requiring redistricting every ten years. Others merely redistricted and reapportioned representation in ways that continued to favor rural interests. There was little voters could do to change things through the electoral process, because apportionment of representatives heavily favored the rural areas, which stubbornly resisted reform.

Baker v. Carr

  • 369 U.S. 186 (1962)
  • Decided: March 26, 1962
  • Vote: 6–2
  • Opinion of the Court: William J. Brennan
  • Concurring opinions: William O. Douglas, Tom Clark, and Potter Stewart
  • Dissenting opinions: Felix Frankfurter and John Marshall Harlan II
  • Not participating: Charles E. Whittaker

Disgruntled urban leaders turned to the legal process to seek equitable representation in government. Charles Baker, the mayor of Millington, Tennessee, a rapidly growing suburb of Memphis, and the leader of the legislative reapportionment movement in Tennessee, was extremely frustrated by the indifference of state legislators to problems in the rapidly growing cities of Tennessee. The state lawmakers routinely snubbed petitions for assistance from urban leaders such as Baker, because the cities of Tennessee were grossly underrepresented in the legislature. By contrast, the overrepresented rural voters got most of the attention and benefits from the state government, because they were the constituents of the vast majority of the legislators.

Approximately 11 percent of the state’s population lived in the rural areas of Tennessee, but more than 60 percent of the representatives in the state legislature were elected by voters residing in the rural areas. Because of this imbalance, the legislature neglected the problems and needs of urban voters. For example, the leader of the Tennessee House of Representatives said, “I believe in collecting the taxes where the money is—in the cities—and spending it where it’s needed—in the country.”

As state government officials were unwilling to reform the electoral system, Charles Baker turned to the federal courts for relief. In 1959, he brought suit against Joseph Cordell Carr, the Tennessee secretary of state, to force reapportionment of the legislature. But the federal district court dismissed the suit because of the legal precedent set in Colegrove v. Green (1946).

The Colegrove case involved reapportionment in Illinois, where population distribution in congressional districts was similar to the situation in Tennessee. However, the U.S. Supreme Court did not respond to this problem. Writing for the Court’s majority in Colegrove, Justice Felix Frankfurter dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, which means that the Court had no authority or legal right to consider this case. Frankfurter held that this case was not justiciable. That is, it was not an appropriate case for the Court to decide, because it posed political questions properly settled by the executive and legislative branches of government, whose leading members are elected by the people. He said, “It is hostile to a democratic system to involve the judiciary in the politics of the people.” He concluded with the admonition that the courts “ought not enter this political thicket.”

Charles Baker appealed the district court’s decision, and in 1962 his case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which seemed interested in reconsidering the issues first presented to it by Colegrove in 1946. Only one of the Court’s majority in Colegrove, Justice Frankfurter, was still a member of the Court in 1962. But two of the dissenters, Justices Black and Douglas, remained and they influenced Chief Justice Warren and the other justices to side with them in accepting the Baker v. Carr case. Charles Rhyne, counsel for Charles Baker, argued that urban voters in Tennessee were denied the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. He requested that the state be ordered to redraw its legislative districts so that each person’s vote would be of equal weight. The Court, however, restricted its decision to questions of whether the Court should hear the case; that is to issues about jurisdiction, justiciability, and standing—a direct interest in the outcome of the case. Thus, the Court decided not to pass judgment on the merits of the complaint brought by the plaintiff about unequal and unfair representation of voters in the state legislature. Nonetheless, the Court’s decision in Baker overturned the precedent established in the 1946 Colegrove case, which was a significant breakthrough for the cause of electoral reform.

Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority, ruled that the Court had jurisdiction or authority to hear this case; he said that “the right [to equal apportionment of representation] is within the reach of judicial protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.” Brennan held that Baker and his associates had standing to bring this complaint to the Court; because as registered voters in an underrepresented urban area, they had an undeniable claim to injury based on unequal representation and thus a stake in the outcome of this case.

The most important part of Brennan’s ruling was that the issue in this case was not a political question and thus was justiciable, or appropriate for the judiciary to decide. He held that the issue in Baker v. Carr was not a political question because it had nothing to do with the principle of separation of powers among the three coordinate branches of government: “[W]e have no questions decided, or to be decided, by a political branch of government coequal with the Court.” Justice Brennan stressed that the issues in the case did not pertain to Article 4, Section 4 of the Constitution, the guaranty of a republican form of government. Questions involving this part of the Constitution were traditionally understood to be outside the Court’s authority. Justice Brennan wrote,

Of course, the mere fact that the suit seeks protection of a political right does not mean it presents a political question . . . Rather, it is argued that the apportionment cases . . . can involve no federal constitutional right except one resting on the guaranty of a republican form of government [Article 4, Section 4], and the complaints based on that clause have been held to present political questions which are nonjusticiable. We hold that the claim pleaded here neither rests upon nor implicates the guaranty Clause and that its justiciability is therefore not foreclosed by our decisions of cases involving that clause.

Brennan concluded “that the complaint’s allegations of a denial of equal protection [under the Fourteenth Amendment] present a justiciable constitutional cause.” Thus, Baker was entitled to a trial, and the case was remanded (sent back) to the federal district court, which now had the authority to make a substantive decision in this case. The court decided in favor of Baker.

Two justices, Felix Frankfurter and John Marshall Harlan II, dissented from the Supreme Court’s decision in Baker v. Carr. In his final opinion as an associate justice (a heart attack forced his retirement on August 28, 1962), Frankfurter lamented the overturning of precedent established in Colegrove v. Green, because he claimed the issue in Baker, as in Colegrove, was essentially political, and not judicial. Thus, he argued, the issue should be left to the executive and legislative branches to decide. Further, Frankfurter claimed that the Baker decision was a “massive repudiation of the experience of our whole past in asserting destructively novel judicial power.” He said it departed from a long tradition of judicial restraint that could be traced to the founding of the republic, whereby the exercise of judicial power was curtailed in order to avoid usurping authority belonging to the political branches of government.

Justice Harlan agreed strongly with Frankfurter, and he argued there was nothing in the U.S. Constitution that required state legislatures to be apportioned in order to equally represent each voter. Both dissenters asserted that the Court’s decision in this case was a product of unwarranted judicial activism, which intruded wrongly into the democratic political process.

The dissenters’ opinions, however, were overwhelmed not only within the Court but throughout the United States. Most major newspapers published favorable editorials about the Court’s decision, and public opinion generally seemed to support it. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy spoke for the majority of Americans when he called this decision “a landmark in the development of representative government.”

Baker v. Carr was the first in a series of cases that led to legislative redistricting throughout the nation. The principle of “one person, one vote”—often associated with Baker —was actually expressed one year later by Justice Douglas in his opinion for the Court in Gray v. Sanders (1963). In this case, the Court ruled against a Georgia law that assigned greater electoral weight to sparsely populated rural counties than to heavily populated urban areas. In his argument against the Georgia electoral system, Douglas wrote, “The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing—one person, one vote.”

Reynolds v. Sims

  • 377 U.S. 533 (1964)
  • Decided: June 15, 1964
  • Vote: 8–1
  • Opinion of the Court: Earl Warren
  • Concurring opinions: Tom Clark and Potter Stewart
  • Dissenting opinion: John Marshall Harlan II

The culminating case on equality in voting and representation was Reynolds v. Sims (1964), which originated in Alabama. Voters in Jefferson County, the state’s most densely populated county, which included the big city of Birmingham, claimed that the unequal representation of citizens in Alabama districts violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to establish equally populated electoral districts for both houses of state legislatures. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Earl Warren stated that plans for setting up legislative districts could not discriminate against people on the basis of where they live (city versus country in this case) any more than they could discriminate on the basis of a person’s race or economic status.

The Court rejected the idea that state legislatures could create electoral districts differently for each of two houses of the state legislature—the representation in one house based on districts roughly equal in population and in the other house based on equal representation of areas regardless of population differences. Instead, Chief Justice Warren argued, the voters of a state must be treated equally by equal representation of electoral districts in both houses of the state legislature. “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres,” declared the Chief Justice. Warren pointed out that counties within a state were not the political equivalents of the states within the federal union of the United States. Thus, unlike the states, which have equal representation in the Senate regardless of differences in population, the counties within a state could not have equal representation, regardless of population differences, in either house of a state legislature.

The Court ruled that state legislatures did not have to draw legislative districts with “mathematical exactness or precision.” However, such districts did have to be based “substantially” on equal population. The Court thus reinforced a bedrock principle of electoral democracy: “one person, one vote.”

As he did in Baker v. Carr, two years before, Justice John Marshall Harlan II dissented against the Court’s ruling, holding firm in his belief that redistricting was an issue best left to the elected representatives of the people in the political branches of state governments. He claimed, as he had in 1962, that this case involved no violation of anyone’s constitutional rights.

The Court’s Reynolds decision was the end of a process initiated by Baker v. Carr in 1962 that transformed the electoral landscape of America by establishing that rural minorities throughout the United States could no longer control state legislatures. After this 1964 decision, forty-nine state legislatures reapportioned their legislative districts on the basis of equal population. (Oregon had already done so in 1961.) This decision also affected national politics because state legislatures draw the lines for the U.S. Congressional districts. This certainly was a great victory for urban voters throughout America. It was also a triumph for the very idea of democracy, which entails rule by the people based on the votes of the majority.

Reflecting on his illustrious career as chief justice of the United States, Earl Warren said these cases were landmarks “in the development of representative government.” Near the end of his life, Warren said the Court’s decisions in Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims —forever remembered as the “one person, one vote” cases—were the most important ones decided during his sixteen years as the chief justice, because they strengthened significantly the practice of democracy, government of the people, which is based on equality in voting and representation.

“The Right to Vote is the Greatest Civil Right”

After the Supreme Court decides to accept a case, a date and time for oral argument is set. Attorneys on both sides of the case speak before the assembled justices in the chamber, or courtroom, of the Supreme Court Building. It is a long-standing tradition for attorneys to begin their formal presentations with the phrase, “May it please the Court.” The justices typically interrupt an attorney’s presentation with questions or comments. In 1955, Chief Justice Earl Warren launched an oral history project—the audio recording of oral arguments in cases that come before the Supreme Court. Charles Rhyne’s oral argument in Baker v. Carr was recorded on April 19, 1961. Rhyne, representing Charles Baker, challenged the unequally apportioned voting districts in Tennessee and called for equality in voting for representatives in government.

Warren: Mr. Rhyne?

Rhyne: Chief Justice Warren, and may it please the Court.

This is a voting rights case. It’s brought here on appeal by eleven Tennessee voters who seek federal court protection to end flagrant discrimination against their right to vote. These eleven Tennessee voters live in five of the largest cities of Tennessee. They are the intended and actual victims of a statutory scheme which devalues, reduces, their right to vote to about one-twentieth of the value of the vote given to certain rural residents. Since the right to vote is the greatest civil right, the most fundamental civil right under our system of government, this system under the statute of Tennessee is as shocking as it is purposeful and successful . . .

The way in which these voting rights of the plaintiffs have been effectively denied—so effectively, we say, as to be effectively destroyed—is by a so-called reapportionment statute adopted in 1901. Now, the ultimate thrust of that statute today is that one-third of the qualified voters living in the rural areas of the state of Tennessee elect two-thirds of the state legislature. Now, that 1901 statute . . . violates the requirement of equality in the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America . . .

The Fourteenth Amendment strikes down discriminations whether they are sophisticated or simpleminded; and we think that, whether you cloak it under the terms of reapportionment or any other cloak, . . . that this is a discrimination which is clear from the facts in the complaint, and under these facts these voters have a constitutional right that is invaded and have standing to maintain this suit. Because a man’s right to vote is personal to him . . . And when these people have their right to vote invaded, diluted, rendered worthless or practically so by the 1901 act, it’s a personal wrong to them to have their vote so affected . . .

Court [identity of the justice is undetermined]: Do you claim that the Fourteenth Amendment requires that each person’s vote in the state be given equal weight?

Rhyne: Reasonable equality, reasonable equality.

Court:As a matter of . . .

Rhyne: Not mathematical equality.

Court: Not mathematical equality?

Rhyne: But reasonable equality. I think that that is the thrust of the equal protection of the laws requirement of the Fourteenth Amendment . . .

Frankfurter:Will you . . . tell us what the remedy is to be here, other than to declare this unconstitutional? . . .

Rhyne: Number one, there is a clear violation of a constitutional right. Number two, there is no reasonable basis for the voting discrimination which is laid out in the complaint, and the defendants offer no justifications for it, and they cannot offer it on these facts.

And, as I have just said, there is no other remedy. We’re at the end of the road. If this is a judicial no-man’s land, these people, the two-thirds of the voters of Tennessee, are consigned to be second-class citizens for the rest of their life, because these defendants exalt their position into an untouchable absolute.