Today in 1964: Supreme Court rules that Congressional districts must be proportional

February 17, 2012

Today in Legal HistoryEvery ten years, when new census population data is released, each state is required to redraw its U.S. Congressional districts so that they are approximately equal in population.

As has been discussed earlier this month, this process causes quite a headache in many circumstances, particularly in regard to “covered jurisdictions” (primarily Southern states) under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, who must receive federal approval for all redistricting.

This requirement to redistrict with population changes is actually a fairly recent development in the nation’s history.

It was created with the Supreme Court ruling Wesberry v. Sanders, which was decided 48 years ago today, on February 17, 1964.

Ironically, despite the fact that redistricting is more burdensome for “covered jurisdictions,” it was voters from Georgia – a covered jurisdiction – that were responsible for the change.

Wesberry was brought by, as mentioned, “citizens and qualified voters of Fulton County, Georgia,” then completely encompassed by Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District.

These citizens felt that they were deprived of voting rights because of disproportionate population sizes of Congressional districts established by statute 33 years earlier.

Just how disproportionate are we talking?

According to the 1960 census, the average population of Georgia’s ten districts (at the time, Georgia only had ten) was 394,312, and the district with the smallest population, the Ninth, had only 272,154 people.

The Fifth district, by contrast, had 823,680 people.

Since there is only one Congressman for each district, the voters argued, this population inequality meant that the Fifth District’s Congressman had to represent two to three times as many people as did Congressmen from other Georgia districts.

This, therefore, meant that a vote from each person in the Fifth district only carried half or a third as much weight as a vote in other Georgia districts, which the Fifth district voters claimed was discriminatory.

The Supreme Court agreed.

In doing so, it relied on Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which requires that representatives shall be chosen “by the People of the several States” and shall be “apportioned among the several States…according to their respective Numbers…”

It further supported that reliance by looking at the drafting of the Constitution in the historical context of the Connecticut Compromise.

The Compromise – between the more and less populous states at the nation’s founding – established a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in the lower house (the House of Representatives) and equal representation in the upper house (the Senate).

Justice Harlan’s dissent, however, rebuked the majority for relying completely on the historical context of the Connecticut Compromise, and not looking at other historical records which, Harlan believed, clearly showed that Article I, Section 4, had given exclusive control over state redistricting to Congress.

Whether Congress originally had exclusive power over state redistricting is somewhat of a moot point now, since Wesberry and the four-month-younger Reynolds v. Sims (ruling that state legislatures must also be equal in proportion) made the issue a judicable one.

Aside from its jurisprudential impact, the ruling drastically changed the electoral landscape of the country, and continues to do so even today.

In fact, 2012 will see the shift in Congressional districts that resulted from 2010 Census numbers.

In addition to many districts being redrawn, some states, such as Ohio and New York will actually lose Congressional districts (they will each lose 2), while states like Texas and Florida will gain districts (Texas will get 4, and Florida, 2).

How this actually impacts the outcome of the presidential and congressional elections remains to be seen.

Regardless, just as it has in previous post-census elections, Wesberry will have a significant impact this year, and surely will in 2022, 2032, and beyond.