The Constitution provides for a census of the population every ten years, and representation in the House of Representatives is reapportioned on the basis of that count. Most states have similar constitutional provisions, but by the 1950s it had become clear that in some states no reapportionment had taken place for many years. As the United States had become more and more urban in character, one-time rural majorities -- now become minorities -- had managed to hold on to political power at the state level by refusing to reapportion the state legislatures. Tennessee and Alabama had not redrawn their legislative lines since 1901, and Delaware since 1897.

Amazing discrepancies existed in some states. In Vermont, for example, the most populous assembly district had 33,000 persons, the least populous 238, yet each had one delegate. The distortions ran even higher in senatorial districts where many states, like the federal model, followed geographical lines. In California the Los Angeles senate district included more than six million people; in a more sparsely populated part of the state, one senate district had only 14,000 persons. Naturally, the entrenched interests in the legislatures were not about to pass any reform measures that would take away their power, and so urban voters, claiming they were denied equal protection of the laws, turned to the courts.

Originally the Supreme Court declared the issue "non-justiciable," that is, the question of reapportionment was one to be solved by the political branches and not by the courts. But in 1960, the Court struck down an apportionment scheme in Alabama designed to prevent African American voters from casting an effective ballot. The Court based its decision on the Fifteenth Amendment, which barred denial of the vote on the basis of race. Urban white voters now argued that if such a remedy existed for black voters, then surely a remedy existed for them as well. In March 1962, the Court agreed, and declared in a case called Baker v. Carr that the issue of reapportionment was justiciable. A year later the Court came up with what would eventually prove to be the formula to resolve the issue, "one person, one vote," which it applied in the landmark case of Reynolds v. Sims.

With the exception of its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, no decision of the Supreme Court in recent years has had such an impact on the social and political fabric of the country. State legislatures that had long been under the control of minority rural populations would now be elected by a true majority of the people. Legislatures more representative of the people would radically change funding formulas for schools, roads and social services. In terms of inclusion, a large number of people, urban and suburban residents in once-rural states, could now exercise their vote on an equal basis.

For further reading: Richard C. Cortner, The Apportionment Cases (1970); Robert G. Dixon, Jr., Democratic Representation: Reapportionment in Law and Politics (1968); Nelson W. Polsby, ed., Reapportionment in the 1970s (1971).


Chief Justice Warren delivered the opinion of the Court.

Wesberry clearly established that the fundamental principle of representative government in this country is one of equal numbers of people, without regard to race, sex, economic status, or place of residence within a State. Our problem, then, is to ascertain, in the instant cases, whether there are any constitutionally cognizable principles which would justify departures from the basic standard of equality among voters in the apportionment of seats in state legislatures. A predominant consideration in determining whether a State's legislative apportionment scheme constitutes an invidious discrimination violative of rights asserted under the Equal Protection Clause is that the rights allegedly impaired are individual and personal in nature. Undoubtedly, the right of suffrage is a fundamental matter in a free and democratic society. Especially since the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights, any alleged infringement of the right of citizens to vote must be carefully and meticulously scrutinized....

Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests. As long as ours is a representative form of government, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system. It could hardly be gainsaid that a constitutional claim had been asserted by an allegation that certain otherwise qualified voters had been entirely prohibited from voting for members of their state legislature. And, if a State should provide that the votes of citizens in one part of the State should be given two times, or five times, or ten times the weight of votes of citizens in another part of the State, it could hardly be contended that the right to vote of those residing in the disfavored areas had not been effectively diluted. Of course, the effect of state legislative districting schemes which give the same number of representatives to unequal numbers of constituents is identical. Weighting the votes of citizens differently, by any method or means, merely because of where they happen to reside, hardly seems justifiable....

Logically, in a society ostensibly grounded on representative government, it would seem reasonable that a majority of the people of a State could elect a majority of that State's legislators. To sanction minority control of state legislative bodies would appear to deny majority rights in a way that far surpasses any possible denial or minority rights that might otherwise be thought to result. And the concept of equal protection has been traditionally viewed as requiring the uniform treatment of persons standing in the same relation to the governmental action questioned or challenged. With respect to the allocation of legislative representation, all voters, as citizens of a State, stand in the same relation regardless of where they live. Any suggested criteria for the differentiation of citizens are insufficient to justify any discrimination, as to the weight of their votes, unless relevant to the permissible purposes of legislative apportionment. Since the achieving of fair and effective representation for all citizens is concededly the basic aim of legislative apportionment, we conclude that the Equal Protection Clause guarantees the opportunity for equal participation by all voters in the election of state legislators. Diluting the weight of votes because of place of residence impairs basic constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment just as much as invidious discriminations based upon factors such as race or economic status.... Our constitutional system amply provides for the protection of minorities by means other than giving them majority control of state legislatures.

We are told that the matter of apportioning representation in a state legislature is a complex and many-faceted one. We are advised that States can rationally consider factors other than populations. We are admonished not to restrict the power of the States to impose differing views as to political philosophy on their citizens. We are cautioned about the dangers of entering into political thickets and mathematical quagmires. Our answer is this: a denial of constitutionally protected rights demands judicial protection; our oath and our office require no less of us. To the extent that a citizen's right to vote is debased, he is that much less a citizen. The weight of a citizen's vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives. Population is, of necessity, the starting point for consideration and the controlling criterion for judgement in legislative apportionment controversies. A citizen, a qualified voter, is no more nor no less so because he lives in the city or on the farm. This is the clear and strong command of our Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. This is at the heart of Lincoln's vision of "government of the people, by the people,...for the people." We hold that, as a basic constitutional standard, the Equal Protection Clause requires that the seats in both houses of a bicameral state legislature must be apportioned on a population basis. Simply stated, an in-dividual's right to vote for state legislators is unconstitutionally impaired when its weight is in a substantial fashion diluted when compared with votes of citizens living in other parts of the state.

Source: 377 U.S. 533 (1964).

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