One Person, One Vote

Dina Rosin (CMC ’20)

When America’s  founding fathers declared independence from Great Britain, they wrote that “all men are created equal,” and thus, all deserved a vote. Throughout U.S. history, voter eligibility has gradually expanded. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1868, granted equal protection of the law, which allowed for non-white men over 21 to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment, passed in 1920, expanded the franchise to allow women to vote. The voting age was lowered to 18 years old in 1971 with the passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment. As more and more people gained the right to vote, it became increasingly important for the vote of individuals to hold roughly equivalent power. While individuals may now not be barred from voting on the basis of race or gender, the size of the legislative voting district has the power to affect the voting power of an individual. The principle of “one person one vote,” as drawn from the fourteenth amendment, has been used as the justification for the rulings of Supreme Court cases surrounding districting. Wesberry v. Sanders, a case heard in 1964, and Evenwel v. Abbott, decided in 2016, both use the “one person, one vote” principle as justification for their rulings on districting for legislative affairs.

In 1964, the Governor of Georgia, Carl E. Sanders, was sued by James. P Wesberry, Jr. due to the way in which the districts were drawn. The Fifth Congressional District, where Wesberry resided, was nearly three times larger than other districts in the state. Wesberry argued that this diluted his vote, as his representative in the U.S. House of Representatives was serving many more constituents. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of Wesberry, deciding that this practice of apportionment was discriminatory against voters in the Fifth Congressional District. The reasoning of the majority opinion was that “to say that a vote is worth more in one district than in another would not only run counter to our fundamental ideas of a democratic government, it would cast aside the principle of a House of Representatives elected ‘by the People…’” While the phrase had yet to be coined, the notion of ‘one person one vote’ was the rationale behind the decision of the court.

Over 50 years later, the notion of “one person, one vote” was under scrutiny when Evenwel v. Abbott was heard by the Supreme Court. This Court examined whether apportioning votes based on total population or data gathered by the census, as opposed to the voter-eligible population, was in opposition to the “one person, one vote” doctrine. Since the voter-eligible population can vary widely between districts, even if they have the same total population, the plaintiff argued that the influence of an individual vote could vary widely. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that it is acceptable for states to use total population when districting for the legislature. This decision was made in response to the Court’s use of total population numbers in the past, and that the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment clearly intended for total population counts to be used. Similar to the decision made in Wesberry v. Sanders, this case reaffirmed that the “one person, one vote” principle means that the interests of all people living in the U.S. should hold equal weight and yield comparable influence in the democratic process.

The “one person, one vote” doctrine has continued to be used as a guiding principle by the Supreme Court when issuing rulings. However, this notion does not ensure that all votes are equally weighted within the democratic process. For instance, practices such as the electoral college can make some votes more weighty and consequential than others, as was illustrated by the 2016 election.  In addition, this principle has not directly eliminated gerrymandering, which can make representatives care more about some interests than others based on the composition of their districts. ‘One person, one vote’ has influenced the composition of the House of Representatives, which has both directly and indirectly shaped policy. Supreme Court decisions have used ‘one person, one vote’ to secure fairer redistricting practices, but the Court must continue to use the principle to determine when districts are fairly drawn, and help ensure that each citizen has a meaningful presence in the democratic process.

 

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