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One Person, One Vote


The National Municipal League popularized the slogan "one man, one vote" from the 1920s to the 1960s to promote reapportionment to equalize political districts. Reapportionment had lagged far behind urban growth, leaving the largest urban districts by 1960 with only half the legislative representatives per capita of the smallest rural ones.

Urban spokesmen claimed that "malapportionment" produced stagnant "barnyard governments" indifferent to urban concerns and needs. They demanded one person, one vote to stop urban blight and revitalize state governments. These conjectural claims did not win reapportionment from legislators reluctant to tamper with their own districts, nor from voters, who repeatedly defeated reapportionment initiatives. But they did persuade political and legal writers and study commissions, who called for courts or commissions to order reapportionment where legislators and voters would not.

The Supreme Court declined this invitation in colegrove v . green (1946) but accepted one person, one vote in reynolds v. sims (1964) as the "fundamental principle" of the Constitution. Political scientists, black rights groups, the New York Times, and the dwight d. eisenhower and john f. kennedy administrations had endorsed that principle.

Some critics thought that the Court had confused individual suffrage with group representation, misconstrued the fourteenth amendment, and ignored the "standards problem" of equalizing group representation, because gerrymandering could still deny equal weight to votes. Others saw little evidence of revitalization or greater equality in substance to match the greater equality in form, and they believed that by overriding legislative and popular majorities, the Court seemed to have devalued the very representative institutions to which it granted equal access in form.

the warren court's adoption of one person, one vote was a remarkable political success, affecting more people than school desegregation or criminal justice cases, with less help from Congress and less damaging backlash. But its practical contributions to equal representation and vital government remain a matter of dispute.

Ward E. Y. Elliott


Elliott, Ward E. Y. 1975 The Rise of Guardian Democracy: The Supreme Court's Role in Voting Rights Disputes, 1845–1969. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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