Gray v. Sanders Established “One Person, One Vote” Redistricting Principle
In Gray v. Sanders, 372 U.S. 368 (1963), the U.S. Supreme Court established the famous “one person, one vote” principle for legislative districting. “The concept of political equality…can mean only one thing—one person, one vote,” Justice William O. Douglas wrote on behalf of the Court.
Facts of Gray v. Sanders
James O’Hear Sanders, a qualified voter in primary and general elections in Fulton county, Georgia, sued in a Federal District Court to restrain the Georgia Secretary of State and officials of the State Democratic Executive Committee, from using Georgia’s county unit system as a basis for counting votes in a Democratic primary election for the nomination of a United States Senator and statewide officers.
Under the system, unit votes were allocated to counties as follows: counties with populations not exceeding 15,000, two units; an additional unit for the next 5,000 persons; an additional unit for the next 10,000; an additional unit for each of the next two brackets of 15,000; and, thereafter, two more units for each increase of 30,000. All candidates for statewide office were required to receive a majority of the county unit votes to be entitled to nomination in the first primary. The practical effect of the system was that the vote of each citizen counts for less and less as the population of his county increases, and a combination of the units from the counties having the smallest population gives counties having one-third of the total population of the State a clear majority of county votes.
Sanders’ suit alleged that the use of the county unit system in counting, tabulating, consolidating, and certifying votes cast in primary elections for statewide offices violated the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Seventeenth Amendment. The District Court held that, as a result ofthe Supreme Court’s decision in Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962), it had jurisdiction, that a justiciable case was stated, that Sanders had standing, and that the Democratic primary in Georgia is “state” action within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. It further held that the county unit system as applied violates the Equal Protection Clause, and it issued an injunction. The injunction did not prohibit the state from conducting any party primary election under the county unit system, but against conducting such an election under a county unit system that did not meet the requirements specified by the court.
Court’s Decision in Gray v. Sanders
By a vote of 8-1, the Court held that that the county unit voting system violated the Equal Protection Clause. Justice William O. Douglas authored the majority opinion.
According to the Court, the District Court correctly held that the county unit system, as applied in a statewide election, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but it erred in framing its injunction so that a county unit system might be used in weighting the votes in a statewide election, if the system showed no greater disparity against a county than exists against any State in the conduct of national elections.
Justice Douglas wrote:
How then can one person be given twice or 10 times the voting power of another person in a statewide election merely because he lives in a rural area, or because he lives in the smallest rural county? Once the geographical unit for which a representative is to be chosen is designated, all who participate in the election are to have an equal vote — whatever their race, whatever their sex, whatever their occupation, whatever their income, and wherever their home may be in that geographical unit. This is required by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
According to the Court, the only weighting of votes sanctioned by the Constitution concerns matters of representation, such as an allocation of Senators irrespective of population and the use of the electoral college in the choice of a President. “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,” the Court further held.
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Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.