Does 'One Person, One Vote' Mean 'One Voter, One Vote'?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"One person, one vote" is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, but the concept isn’t in the Constitution and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the idea gained traction.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor remembers the days before the concept became common currency, as she told the producers of the documentary film "One Person, One Vote."

"I came from Greenlee County, Arizona, which never had a population of over 10,000 people," Justice O'Connor explains. "But both Maricopa County, with its two million people, and Greenlee County had the same number of members of the House of Representatives in Arizona and the same number of senators."

Justice O'Connor's former colleague, Justice Stephen Breyer, also recalls the days before "one person, one vote."

"When I grew up in San Francisco," Justice Breyer says in the documentary, "I knew perfectly well that the people in Northern California had probably more votes in the legislature than those in Southern California. And I would think, 'that's great!'"

The Supreme Court finally set out "one person, one vote" in a series of decisions known as the Apportionment Cases, and in 1964, in the case Reynolds v. Sims, the Justices decided that, under the Equal Protection Clause, state voting districts have to be equal in population. 

The U.S. has changed a great deal since the Reynolds decision, though, and next week the Justices will decide whether to hear Lepak v. City of Irving, a case out of Texas that hinges on the question of whether "one person, one vote" means "one voter, one vote." As Richard Pildes, constitutional law professor at New York University, explains, Irving, Texas, is divided into six City Council districts, all equal in terms of population. One of the districts includes a significant immigrant population, however, rendering half of that district ineligible to vote. The eligible voters left therefore have more political power than those in the other districts.


Richard Pildes

Produced by:

Jillian Weinberger

Comments [4]

dlmc from Brooklyn

"The none citizen population". PLEASE. Enough with the newspeak - they are illegal aliens.

Mar. 20 2013 02:42 PM
ivan from Portland, OR

I'm surprised you and your guest aren't mentioning incarcerated populations. Rural towns and counties build prisons, get credit for that (nonvoting) population, and systematically depress the influence of urban areas, where many incarcerated persons are coming from.

The impact is pretty dramatic in places like New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois, where despite the big representation of the cities, rural/suburban interests dominate the state legislatures, because the population of the cities is being shifted through "counting" prisoners.

Mar. 20 2013 01:15 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

"What is the baseline for equality?" I love that question...

Anytime, there is a legal question regarding Voting; I raise my eyebrow. Politicians spend a lot of money to corner their districts and will fight always on this topic of who to count, and who should be counted.
The topic will never be resolved.

Mar. 20 2013 01:08 PM

Absolutely the Supreme Court needs to take this up sooner rather than later. In my home state of Michigan, Republicans have proposed that electoral votes (in presidential elections) be awarded by state congressional district as opposed to winner-take-all. The population is concentrated in a few blue congressional districts around Detroit. There are twice as many sparsely populated red districts in rural Michigan. The result would be the disenfranchisement of individual votes. We have too many shenanigans going on with redistricting to go forward with this ridiculous proposal. Nationally, serious consideration needs to be given to whether the electoral college should be abolished.

Mar. 20 2013 10:06 AM

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