In 1960, a town of 38 residents in Vermont elected the same number of representatives—one—as Burlington, population 33,000. In Georgia, house districts contained between 1,876 and 185,422 constituents. In California, more than 6 million residents of Los Angeles County elected just one state senator, as did 14,294 inhabitants of three counties on the eastern slope of the Sierra. Legislative malapportionment produced staggering inequality in virtually every state in the union. It was to address this situation that the Supreme Court established “one person, one vote” as a bedrock of American democracy. Now, for the first time since that era, the “reapportionment revolution” is under threat. This fall, in Evenwel v. Abbott, the Court will weigh whether or not “one person, one vote” allows states to base apportionments on all persons living within a given district, or whether the phrase really means “one voter, one vote” and requires states to count only voters for the purposes of representation. A ruling in favor of the challengers, who claim the weight of their votes has been diluted because Texas counts all persons, threatens to undermine one of the great achievements of 20th-century American democracy.
Until now, states have had the leeway to define their own method and have overwhelmingly opted to consider all persons; only a handful of states base apportionments on the number of voters. A ruling in favor of the challengers threatens to disqualify, at least for the purposes of representation, persons under the age of 18, documented immigrants who are not yet citizens, and former felons who have lost the right to vote. Latino immigrants and African-American males, who disproportionately live in urban areas, would be most affected.
Chief Justice Earl Warren considered the reapportionment rulings, which are now at risk of being overturned, the most important of his tenure—more important than Brown v. Board of Education, more important than Gideon v.Wainwright. They were intended to correct what had become, in effect, a system of minority rule.