Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

9.3: Congressional Power to Protect Voting Rights

  • Page ID
    170050
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966)

    383 U.S. 301 (1966)

    Vote: 8-1
    Decision: Dismissed
    Majority: Warren, joined by Douglas, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, and Fortas
    Concur/Dissent: Black

    MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

    … The Voting Rights Act was designed by Congress to banish the blight of racial discrimination in voting, which has infected the electoral process in parts of our country for nearly a century. The Act creates stringent new remedies for voting discrimination where it persists on a pervasive scale, and in addition the statute strengthens existing remedies for pockets of voting discrimination elsewhere in the country. Congress assumed the power to prescribe these remedies from § 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment, which authorizes the National Legislature to effectuate by “appropriate” measures the constitutional prohibition against racial discrimination in voting. We hold that the sections of the Act which are properly before us are an appropriate means for carrying out Congress’ constitutional responsibilities and are consonant with all other provisions of the Constitution. We therefore deny South Carolina’s request that enforcement of these sections of the Act be enjoined.

    The constitutional propriety of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 must be judged with reference to the historical experience which it reflects. Before enacting the measure, Congress explored with great care the problem of racial discrimination in voting. …

    Two points emerge vividly from the voluminous legislative history of the Act contained in the committee hearings and floor debates. First: Congress felt itself confronted by an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution. Second: Congress concluded that the unsuccessful remedies which it had prescribed in the past would have to be replaced by sterner and more elaborate measures in order to satisfy the clear commands of the Fifteenth Amendment. …

    In recent years, Congress has repeatedly tried to cope with the problem by facilitating case-by-case litigation against voting discrimination. …

    Despite the earnest efforts of the Justice Department and of many federal judges, these new laws have done little to cure the problem of voting discrimination. … [R]egistration of voting-age Negroes in Alabama rose only from 14.2% to 19.4% between 1958 and 1964; in Louisiana it barely inched ahead from 31.7% to 31.8% between 1956 and 1965; and in Mississippi it increased only from 4.4% to 6.4% between 1954 and 1964. In each instance, registration of voting-age whites ran roughly 50 percentage points or more ahead of Negro registration.

    The previous legislation has proved ineffective for a number of reasons. Voting suits are unusually onerous to prepare, sometimes requiring as many as 6,000 man-hours spent combing through registration records in preparation for trial. Litigation has been exceedingly slow, in part because of the ample opportunities for delay afforded voting officials and others involved in the proceedings. Even when favorable decisions have finally been obtained, some of the States affected have merely switched to discriminatory devices not covered by the federal decrees or have enacted difficult new tests designed to prolong the existing disparity between white and Negro registration. …

    During the hearings and debates on the Act, Selma, Alabama, was repeatedly referred to as the pre-eminent example of the ineffectiveness of existing legislation. In Dallas County, of which Selma is the seat, there were four years of litigation by the Justice Department and two findings by the federal courts of widespread voting discrimination. Yet in those four years, Negro registration rose only from 156 to 383, although there are approximately 15,000 Negroes of voting age in the county. Any possibility that these figures were attributable to political apathy was dispelled by the protest demonstrations in Selma in the early months of 1965. …

    The Voting Rights Act of 1965 reflects Congress’ firm intention to rid the country of racial discrimination in voting. The heart of the Act is a complex scheme of stringent remedies aimed at areas where voting discrimination has been most flagrant. Section 4 (a)-(d) lays down a formula defining the States and political subdivisions to which these new remedies apply. The first of the remedies, contained in § 4 (a), is the suspension of literacy tests and similar voting qualifications for a period of five years from the last occurrence of substantial voting discrimination. Section 5 prescribes a second remedy, the suspension of all new voting regulations pending review by federal authorities to determine whether their use would perpetuate voting discrimination. The third remedy, covered in §§ 6 (b), 7, 9, and 13 (a), is the assignment of federal examiners on certification by the Attorney General to list qualified applicants who are thereafter entitled to vote in all elections. …

    … The remedial sections of the Act assailed by South Carolina automatically apply to any State, or to any separate political subdivision such as a county or parish, for which two findings have been made: (1) the Attorney General has determined that on November 1, 1964, it maintained a “test or device,” and (2) the Director of the Census has determined that less than 50% of its voting-age residents were registered on November 1, 1964, or voted in the presidential election of November 1964. … As used throughout the Act, the phrase “test or device” means any requirement that a registrant or voter must “(1) demonstrate the ability to read, write, understand, or interpret any matter, (2) demonstrate any educational achievement or his knowledge of any particular subject, (3) possess good moral character, or (4) prove his qualifications by the voucher of registered voters or members of any other class.”

    … In a State or political subdivision covered by § 4 (b) of the Act, no person may be denied the right to vote in any election because of his failure to comply with a voting qualification or procedure different from those in force on November 1, 1964. This suspension of new rules is terminated, however, under either of the following circumstances: (1) if the area has submitted the rules to the Attorney General, and he has not interposed an objection within 60 days, or (2) if the area has obtained a declaratory judgment from the District Court for the District of Columbia, determining that the rules will not abridge the franchise on racial grounds. …

    These provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are challenged on the fundamental ground that they exceed the powers of Congress and encroach on an area reserved to the States by the Constitution. …

    The ground rules for resolving this question are clear. The language and purpose of the Fifteenth Amendment, the prior decisions construing its several provisions, and the general doctrines of constitutional interpretation, all point to one fundamental principle. As against the reserved powers of the States, Congress may use any rational means to effectuate the constitutional prohibition of racial discrimination in voting … We turn now to a more detailed description of the standards which govern our review of the Act.

    Section 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment declares that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” This declaration has always been treated as self-executing and has repeatedly been construed, without further legislative specification, to invalidate state voting qualifications or procedures which are discriminatory on their face or in practice. …

    South Carolina contends that the cases cited above are precedents only for the authority of the judiciary to strike down state statutes and procedures—that to allow an exercise of this authority by Congress would be to rob the courts of their rightful constitutional role. On the contrary, § 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment expressly declares that “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” By adding this authorization, the Framers indicated that Congress was to be chiefly responsible for implementing the rights created in § 1. … Accordingly, in addition to the courts, Congress has full remedial powers to effectuate the constitutional prohibition against racial discrimination in voting. …

    The basic test to be applied in a case involving § 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment is the same as in all cases concerning the express powers of Congress with relation to the reserved powers of the States. Chief Justice Marshall laid down the classic formulation, 50 years before the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified:

    “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.” McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

    The Court has subsequently echoed his language in describing each of the Civil War Amendments:

    “Whatever legislation is appropriate, that is, adapted to carry out the objects the amendments have in view, whatever tends to enforce submission to the prohibitions they contain, and to secure to all persons the enjoyment of perfect equality of civil rights and the equal protection of the laws against State denial or invasion, if not prohibited, is brought within the domain of congressional power.” Ex parte Virginia (1879).

    … We therefore reject South Carolina’s argument that Congress may appropriately do no more than to forbid violations of the Fifteenth Amendment in general terms— that the task of fashioning specific remedies or of applying them to particular localities must necessarily be left entirely to the courts. Congress is not circumscribed by any such artificial rules under § 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment. …

    Congress exercised its authority under the Fifteenth Amendment in an inventive manner when it enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. First: The measure prescribes remedies for voting discrimination which go into effect without any need for prior adjudication. This was clearly a legitimate response to the problem, for which there is ample precedent under other constitutional provisions. See Katzenbach v McClung (1964); United States v. Darby (1941). Congress had found that case-by-case litigation was inadequate to combat widespread and persistent discrimination in voting, because of the inordinate amount of time and energy required to overcome the obstructionist tactics invariably encountered in these lawsuits. After enduring nearly a century of systematic resistance to the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress might well decide to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims. …

    Second: The Act intentionally confines these remedies to a small number of States and political subdivisions which in most instances were familiar to Congress by name. This, too, was a permissible method of dealing with the problem. Congress had learned that substantial voting discrimination presently occurs in certain sections of the country, and it knew no way of accurately forecasting whether the evil might spread elsewhere in the future. In acceptable legislative fashion, Congress chose to limit its attention to the geographic areas where immediate action seemed necessary. See McGowan v. Maryland (1961); Salsburg v. Maryland (1954). The doctrine of the equality of States, invoked by South Carolina, does not bar this approach, for that doctrine applies only to the terms upon which States are admitted to the Union, and not to the remedies for local evils which have subsequently appeared. See Coyle v. Smith (1911)

    Coverage formula.

    We now consider the related question of whether the specific States and political subdivisions within § 4 (b) of the Act were an appropriate target for the new remedies. … Congress began work with reliable evidence of actual voting discrimination in a great majority of the States and political subdivisions affected by the new remedies of the Act. The formula eventually evolved to describe these areas was relevant to the problem of voting discrimination, and Congress was therefore entitled to infer a significant danger of the evil in the few remaining States and political subdivisions covered by § 4 (b) of the Act. No more was required to justify the application to these areas of Congress’ express powers under the Fifteenth Amendment. …

    Review of new rules.

    The Act suspends new voting regulations pending scrutiny by federal authorities to determine whether their use would violate the Fifteenth Amendment. This may have been an uncommon exercise of congressional power, as South Carolina contends, but the Court has recognized that exceptional conditions can justify legislative measures not otherwise appropriate. See Home Bldg. & Loan Assn. V. Blaisdell(1934); Wilson v. New (1917). Congress knew that some of the States covered by § 4 (b) of the Act had resorted to the extraordinary stratagem of contriving new rules of various kinds for the sole purpose of perpetuating voting discrimination in the face of adverse federal court decrees. Congress had reason to suppose that these States might try similar maneuvers in the future in order to evade the remedies for voting discrimination contained in the Act itself. Under the compulsion of these unique circumstances, Congress responded in a permissibly decisive manner. …

    After enduring nearly a century of widespread resistance to the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress has marshalled an array of potent weapons against the evil, with authority in the Attorney General to employ them effectively. Many of the areas directly affected by this development have indicated their willingness to abide by any restraints legitimately imposed upon them. We here hold that the portions of the Voting Rights Act properly before us are a valid means for carrying out the commands of the Fifteenth Amendment. Hopefully, millions of non-white Americans will not be able to participate for the first time on an equal basis in the government under which they live. We may finally look forward to the day when truly “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

    The bill of complaint is

    Dismissed.

    MR. JUSTICE BLACK, concurring and dissenting.

    Though, as I have said, I agree with most of the Court’s conclusions, I dissent from its holding that every part of § 5 of the Act is constitutional. Section 4 (a), to which § 5 is linked, suspends for five years all literacy tests and similar devices in those States coming within the formula of § 4 (b). Section 5 goes on to provide that a State covered by § 4 (b) can in no way amend its constitution or laws relating to voting without first trying to persuade the Attorney General of the United States or the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia that the new proposed laws do not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying the right to vote to citizens on account of their race or color.

    … Section 5, by providing that some of the States cannot pass state laws or adopt state constitutional amendments without first being compelled to beg federal authorities to approve their policies, so distorts our constitutional structure of government as to render any distinction drawn in the Constitution between state and federal power almost meaningless. One of the most basic premises upon which our structure of government was founded was that the Federal Government was to have certain specific and limited powers and no others, and all other power was to be reserved either “to the States respectively, or to the people.” Certainly if all the provisions of our Constitution which limit the power of the Federal Government and reserve other power to the States are to mean anything, they mean at least that the States have power to pass laws and amend their constitutions without first sending their officials hundreds of miles away to beg federal authorities to approve them. Moreover, it seems to me that § 5 which gives federal officials power to veto state laws they do not like is in direct conflict with the clear command of our Constitution that “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.” I cannot help but believe that the inevitable effect of any such law which forces any one of the States to entreat federal authorities in far-away places for approval of local laws before they can become effective is to create the impression that the State or States treated in this way are little more than conquered provinces. And if one law concerning voting can make the States plead for this approval by a distant federal court or the United States Attorney General, other laws on different subjects can force the States to seek the advance approval not only of the Attorney General but of the President himself or any other chosen members of his staff. It is inconceivable to me that such a radical degradation of state power was intended in any of the provisions of our Constitution or its Amendments. Of course I do not mean to cast any doubt whatever upon the indisputable power of the Federal Government to invalidate a state law once enacted and operative on the ground that it intrudes into the area of supreme federal power. But the Federal Government has heretofore always been content to exercise this power to protect federal supremacy by authorizing its agents to bring lawsuits against state officials once an operative state law has created an actual case and controversy. A federal law which assumes the power to compel the States to submit in advance any proposed legislation they have for approval by federal agents approaches dangerously near to wiping the States out as useful and effective units in the government of our country. I cannot agree to any constitutional interpretation that leads inevitably to such a result.

    … In this and other prior Acts Congress has quite properly vested the Attorney General with extremely broad power to protect voting rights of citizens against discrimination on account of race or color. Section 5 viewed in this context is of very minor importance and in my judgment is likely to serve more as an irritant to the States than as an aid to the enforcement of the Act. I would hold § 5 invalid for the reasons stated above with full confidence that the Attorney General has ample power to give vigorous, expeditious and effective protection to the voting rights of all citizens.


    Shelby County v. Holder (2013)

    570 U.S. 529 (2013)

    Vote: 5-4
    Decision: Reversed
    Majority: Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito
    Concurrence: Thomas
    Dissent: Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor

    Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

    The Voting Rights Act of 1965 employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem. Section 5 of the Act required States to obtain federal permission before enacting any law related to voting — a drastic departure from basic principles of federalism. And § 4 of the Act applied that requirement only to some States — an equally dramatic departure from the principle that all States enjoy equal sovereignty. This was strong medicine, but Congress determined it was needed to address entrenched racial discrimination in voting, “an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution.” South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966). As we explained in upholding the law, “exceptional conditions can justify legislative measures not otherwise appropriate.” Reflecting the unprecedented nature of these measures, they were scheduled to expire after five years.

    Nearly 50 years later, they are still in effect; indeed, they have been made more stringent, and are now scheduled to last until 2031. There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions. By 2009, “the racial gap in voter registration and turnout [was] lower in the States originally covered by § 5 than it [was] nationwide.” Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Holder (2009). Since that time, Census Bureau data indicate that African-American voter turnout has come to exceed white voter turnout in five of the six States originally covered by § 5, with a gap in the sixth State of less than one half of one percent.

    At the same time, voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that. The question is whether the Act’s extraordinary measures, including its disparate treatment of the States, continue to satisfy constitutional requirements. …

    In Northwest Austin (2009), we stated that “the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.”. And we concluded that “a departure from the fundamental principle of equal sovereignty requires a showing that a statute’s disparate geographic coverage is sufficiently related to the problem that it targets.” These basic principles guide our review of the question before us.

    The Constitution and laws of the United States are “the supreme Law of the Land.” State legislation may not contravene federal law. The Federal Government does not, however, have a general right to review and veto state enactments before they go into effect. A proposal to grant such authority to “negative” state laws was considered at the Constitutional Convention, but rejected in favor of allowing state laws to take effect, subject to later challenge under the Supremacy Clause.

    Outside the strictures of the Supremacy Clause, States retain broad autonomy in structuring their governments and pursuing legislative objectives. Indeed, the Constitution provides that all powers not specifically granted to the Federal Government are reserved to the States or citizens. This “allocation of powers in our federal system preserves the integrity, dignity, and residual sovereignty of the States.” Bond v. United States (2011). But the federal balance “is not just an end in itself: Rather, federalism secures to citizens the liberties that derive from the diffusion of sovereign power.” …

    Not only do States retain sovereignty under the Constitution, there is also a “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” among the States. Over a hundred years ago, this Court explained that our Nation “was and is a union of States, equal in power, dignity and authority.” Coyle v. Smith, 221 U.S. (1911). Indeed, “the constitutional equality of the States is essential to the harmonious operation of the scheme upon which the Republic was organized.” Coyle concerned the admission of new States, and Katzenbach rejected the notion that the principle operated as a bar on differential treatment outside that context. South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966). At the same time, as we made clear in Northwest Austin, the fundamental principle of equal sovereignty remains highly pertinent in assessing subsequent disparate treatment of States.

    The Voting Rights Act sharply departs from these basic principles. It suspends “all changes to state election law — however innocuous — until they have been precleared by federal authorities in Washington, D.C.” States must beseech the Federal Government for permission to implement laws that they would otherwise have the right to enact and execute on their own, subject of course to any injunction in a § 2 action. The Attorney General has 60 days to object to a preclearance request, longer if he requests more information. If a State seeks preclearance from a three-judge court, the process can take years.

    And despite the tradition of equal sovereignty, the Act applies to only nine States (and several additional counties). While one State waits months or years and expends funds to implement a validly enacted law, its neighbor can typically put the same law into effect immediately, through the normal legislative process. Even if a noncovered jurisdiction is sued, there are important differences between those proceedings and preclearance proceedings; the preclearance proceeding “not only switches the burden of proof to the supplicant jurisdiction, but also applies substantive standards quite different from those governing the rest of the nation.” …

    In 1966, we found these departures from the basic features of our system of government justified. The “blight of racial discrimination in voting” had “infected the electoral process in parts of our country for nearly a century.” Katzenbach (1966). Several States had enacted a variety of requirements and tests “specifically designed to prevent” African-Americans from voting. Case-by-case litigation had proved inadequate to prevent such racial discrimination in voting, in part because States “merely switched to discriminatory devices not covered by the federal decrees,” “enacted difficult new tests,” or simply “defied and evaded court orders.” Shortly before enactment of the Voting Rights Act, only 19.4 percent of African-Americans of voting age were registered to vote in Alabama, only 31.8 percent in Louisiana, and only 6.4 percent in Mississippi. Those figures were roughly 50 percentage points or more below the figures for whites. …

    At the time, the coverage formula — the means of linking the exercise of the unprecedented authority with the problem that warranted it — made sense. … It accurately reflected those jurisdictions uniquely characterized by voting discrimination “on a pervasive scale,” linking coverage to the devices used to effectuate discrimination and to the resulting disenfranchisement. The formula ensured that the “stringent remedies [were] aimed at areas where voting discrimination ha[d] been most flagrant.”

    Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically. Shelby County contends that the preclearance requirement, even without regard to its disparate coverage, is now unconstitutional. Its arguments have a good deal of force. In the covered jurisdictions, “[v]oter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.” Northwest Austin (2009). The tests and devices that blocked access to the ballot have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years.

    Those conclusions are not ours alone. Congress said the same when it reauthorized the Act in 2006, writing that “[s]ignificant progress has been made in eliminating first generation barriers experienced by minority voters, including increased numbers of registered minority voters, minority voter turnout, and minority representation in Congress, State legislatures, and local elected offices.” The House Report elaborated that “the number of African-Americans who are registered and who turn out to cast ballots has increased significantly over the last 40 years, particularly since 1982,” and noted that “[i]n some circumstances, minorities register to vote and cast ballots at levels that surpass those of white voters.” That Report also explained that there have been “significant increases in the number of African-Americans serving in elected offices”; more specifically, there has been approximately a 1,000 percent increase since 1965 in the number of African-American elected officials in the six States originally covered by the Voting Rights Act.

    … The following chart, compiled from the Senate and House Reports, compares voter registration numbers from 1965 to those from 2004 in the six originally covered States. These are the numbers that were before Congress when it reauthorized the Act in 2006:

    Voter registration numbers from 1965 to those from 2004 in the six originally covered States
      1965     2004    
      White Black Gap White Black Gap
    Alabama 69.2 19.3 49.9 73.8 72.9 0.9
    Georgia 62.[6] 27.4 35.2 63.5 64.2 -0.7
    Louisiana 80.5 31.6 48.9 75.1 71.1 4.0
    Mississippi 69.6 6.7 63.2 72.3 76.1 -3.8
    South Carolina 75.7 37.3 38.4 74.4 71.1 3.3
    Virginia 61.1 38.3 22.8 68.2 57.4 10.8

    … There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act. The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process. … Problems remain in these States and others, but there is no denying that, due to the Voting Rights Act, our Nation has made great strides.

    Yet the Act has not eased the restrictions in § 5 or narrowed the scope of the coverage formula in § 4(b) along the way. Those extraordinary and unprecedented features were reauthorized — as if nothing had changed. In fact, the Act’s unusual remedies have grown even stronger. …

    Respondents do not deny that there have been improvements on the ground, but argue that much of this can be attributed to the deterrent effect of § 5, which dissuades covered jurisdictions from engaging in discrimination that they would resume should § 5 be struck down. Under this theory, however, § 5 would be effectively immune from scrutiny; no matter how “clean” the record of covered jurisdictions, the argument could always be made that it was deterrence that accounted for the good behavior.

    The provisions of § 5 apply only to those jurisdictions singled out by § 4. We now consider whether that coverage formula is constitutional s of current conditions.

    When upholding the constitutionality of the coverage formula in 1966, we concluded that it was “rational in both practice and theory.” Katzenbach (1966). The formula looked to cause (discriminatory tests) and effect (low voter registration and turnout), and tailored the remedy (preclearance) to those jurisdictions exhibiting both.

    By 2009, however, we concluded that the “coverage formula raise[d] serious constitutional questions.” Northwest Austin (2009). As we explained, a statute’s “current burdens” must be justified by “current needs,” and any “disparate geographic coverage” must be “sufficiently related to the problem that it targets.” The coverage formula met that test in 1965, but no longer does so.

    Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices. The formula captures States by reference to literacy tests and low voter registration and turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s … Racial disparity in those numbers was compelling evidence justifying the preclearance remedy and the coverage formula. See Katzenbach (1966). There is no longer such a disparity.

    In 1965, the States could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics. Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the Nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.

    … The Government falls back to the argument that because the formula was relevant in 1965, its continued use is permissible so long as any discrimination remains in the States Congress identified back then — regardless of how that discrimination compares to discrimination in States unburdened by coverage. This argument does not look to “current political conditions,” but instead relies on a comparison between the States in 1965. That comparison reflected the different histories of the North and South. It was in the South that slavery was upheld by law until uprooted by the Civil War, that the reign of Jim Crow denied African-Americans the most basic freedoms, and that state and local governments worked tirelessly to disenfranchise citizens on the basis of race. The Court invoked that history — rightly so — in sustaining the disparate coverage of the Voting Rights Act in 1966. See Katzenbach (1966).

    But history did not end in 1965. By the time the Act was reauthorized in 2006, there had been 40 more years of it. In assessing the “current need[]” for a preclearance system that treats States differently from one another today, that history cannot be ignored. During that time, largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers. And yet the coverage formula that Congress reauthorized in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs. …

    In defending the coverage formula, the Government, the intervenors, and the dissent also rely heavily on data from the record that they claim justify disparate coverage. … Regardless of how to look at the record, however, no one can fairly say that it shows anything approaching the “pervasive,” “flagrant,” “widespread,” and “rampant” discrimination that faced Congress in 1965, and that clearly distinguished the covered jurisdictions from the rest of the Nation at that time.

    But a more fundamental problem remains: Congress did not use the record it compiled to shape a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead reenacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day. The dissent relies on “second-generation barriers,” which are not impediments to the casting of ballots, but rather electoral arrangements that affect the weight of minority votes. That does not cure the problem. Viewing the preclearance requirements as targeting such efforts simply highlights the irrationality of continued reliance on the § 4 coverage formula, which is based on voting tests and access to the ballot, not vote dilution. We cannot pretend that we are reviewing an updated statute, or try our hand at updating the statute ourselves, based on the new record compiled by Congress. Contrary to the dissent’s contention, we are not ignoring the record; we are simply recognizing that it played no role in shaping the statutory formula before us today.

    … There is no valid reason to insulate the coverage formula from review merely because it was previously enacted 40 years ago. If Congress had started from scratch in 2006, it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula. It would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between States in such a fundamental way based on 40-year-old data, when today’s statistics tell an entirely different story. And it would have been irrational to base coverage on the use of voting tests 40 years ago, when such tests have been illegal since that time. But that is exactly what Congress has done.

    * * *

    Striking down an Act of Congress “is the gravest and most delicate duty that this Court is called on to perform.” Blodgett v. Holden (1927). We do not do so lightly. That is why, in 2009, we took care to avoid ruling on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act when asked to do so, and instead resolved the case then before us on statutory grounds. But in issuing that decision, we expressed our broader concerns about the constitutionality of the Act. Congress could have updated the coverage formula at that time, but did not do so. Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare § 4(b) unconstitutional. The formula in that section can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance. …

    The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

    It is so ordered.

    Justice GINSBURG, with whom Justice BREYER, Justice SOTOMAYOR, and Justice KAGAN join, dissenting.

    In the Court’s view, the very success of § 5 of the Voting Rights Act demands its dormancy. Congress was of another mind. Recognizing that large progress has been made, Congress determined, based on a voluminous record, that the scourge of discrimination was not yet extirpated. The question this case presents is who decides whether, as currently operative, § 5 remains justifiable, this Court, or a Congress charged with the obligation to enforce the post-Civil War Amendments “by appropriate legislation.” With overwhelming support in both Houses, Congress concluded that, for two prime reasons, § 5 should continue in force, unabated. First, continuance would facilitate completion of the impressive gains thus far made; and second, continuance would guard against backsliding. Those assessments were well within Congress’ province to make and should elicit this Court’s unstinting approbation.

    “[V]oting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.” But the Court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) has worked to combat voting discrimination where other remedies had been tried and failed. Particularly effective is the VRA’s requirement of federal preclearance for all changes to voting laws in the regions of the country with the most aggravated records of rank discrimination against minority voting rights. …

    Although the VRA wrought dramatic changes in the realization of minority voting rights, the Act, to date, surely has not eliminated all vestiges of discrimination against the exercise of the franchise by minority citizens. Jurisdictions covered by the preclearance requirement continued to submit, in large numbers, proposed changes to voting laws that the Attorney General declined to approve, auguring that barriers to minority voting would quickly resurface were the preclearance remedy eliminated. City of Rome v. United States (1980). Congress also found that as “registration and voting of minority citizens increas[ed], other measures may be resorted to which would dilute increasing minority voting strength.” See also Shaw v. Reno (1993). Efforts to reduce the impact of minority votes, in contrast to direct attempts to block access to the ballot, are aptly described as “second-generation barriers” to minority voting.

    Second-generation barriers come in various forms. One of the blockages is racial gerrymandering, the redrawing of legislative districts in an “effort to segregate the races for purposes of voting.” Another is adoption of a system of at-large voting in lieu of district-by-district voting in a city with a sizable black minority. By switching to at-large voting, the overall majority could control the election of each city council member, effectively eliminating the potency of the minority’s votes. A similar effect could be achieved if the city engaged in discriminatory annexation by incorporating majority-white areas into city limits, thereby decreasing the effect of VRA-occasioned increases in black voting. Whatever the device employed, this Court has long recognized that vote dilution, when adopted with a discriminatory purpose, cuts down the right to vote as certainly as denial of access to the ballot. …

    After considering the full legislative record, Congress made the following findings: The VRA has directly caused significant progress in eliminating first-generation barriers to ballot access, leading to a marked increase in minority voter registration and turnout and the number of minority elected officials. But despite this progress, “second generation barriers constructed to prevent minority voters from fully participating in the electoral process” continued to exist, as well as racially polarized voting in the covered jurisdictions, which increased the political vulnerability of racial and language minorities in those jurisdictions. Extensive “[e]vidence of continued discrimination,” Congress concluded, “clearly show[ed] the continued need for Federal oversight” in covered jurisdictions. The overall record demonstrated to the federal lawmakers that, “without the continuation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protections, racial and language minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, or will have their votes diluted, undermining the significant gains made by minorities in the last 40 years.”

    Based on these findings, Congress reauthorized preclearance for another 25 years, while also undertaking to reconsider the extension after 15 years to ensure that the provision was still necessary and effective. The question before the Court is whether Congress had the authority under the Constitution to act as it did.

    In answering this question, the Court does not write on a clean slate. It is well established that Congress’ judgment regarding exercise of its power to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments warrants substantial deference. The VRA addresses the combination of race discrimination and the right to vote, which is “preservative of all rights.” Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886). When confronting the most constitutionally invidious form of discrimination, and the most fundamental right in our democratic system, Congress’ power to act is at its height.

    The basis for this deference is firmly rooted in both constitutional text and precedent. The Fifteenth Amendment, which targets precisely and only racial discrimination in voting rights, states that, in this domain, “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” In choosing this language, the Amendment’s framers invoked Chief Justice Marshall’s formulation of the scope of Congress’ powers under the Necessary and Proper Clause:

    “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.” McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) (emphasis added).

    It cannot tenably be maintained that the VRA, an Act of Congress adopted to shield the right to vote from racial discrimination, is inconsistent with the letter or spirit of the Fifteenth Amendment, or any provision of the Constitution read in light of the Civil War Amendments. Nowhere in today’s opinion, or in Northwest Austin, is there clear recognition of the transformative effect the Fifteenth Amendment aimed to achieve.

    … [T]he Constitution vests broad power in Congress to protect the right to vote, and in particular to combat racial discrimination in voting. This Court has repeatedly reaffirmed Congress’ prerogative to use any rational means in exercise of its power in this area. And both precedent and logic dictate that the rational-means test should be easier to satisfy, and the burden on the statute’s challenger should be higher, when what is at issue is the reauthorization of a remedy that the Court has previously affirmed, and that Congress found, from contemporary evidence, to be working to advance the legislature’s legitimate objective.

    The 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act fully satisfies the standard stated in McCulloch (1819): Congress may choose any means “appropriate” and “plainly adapted to” a legitimate constitutional end. As we shall see, it is implausible to suggest otherwise. …

    Congress approached the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA with great care and seriousness. The same cannot be said of the Court’s opinion today. The Court makes no genuine attempt to engage with the massive legislative record that Congress assembled. Instead, it relies on increases in voter registration and turnout as if that were the whole story. Without even identifying a standard of review, the Court dismissively brushes off arguments based on “data from the record,” and declines to enter the “debat[e about] what [the] record shows.” One would expect more from an opinion striking at the heart of the Nation’s signal piece of civil-rights legislation.

    I note the most disturbing lapses. First, by what right, given its usual restraint, does the Court even address Shelby County’s facial challenge to the VRA? Second, the Court veers away from controlling precedent regarding the “equal sovereignty” doctrine without even acknowledging that it is doing so. Third, hardly showing the respect ordinarily paid when Congress acts to implement the Civil War Amendments, and as just stressed, the Court does not even deign to grapple with the legislative record. …

    The Court stops any application of § 5 by holding that § 4(b)’s coverage formula is unconstitutional. It pins this result, in large measure, to “the fundamental principle of equal sovereignty.” In Katzenbach, however, the Court held, in no uncertain terms, that the principle “applies only to the terms upon which States are admitted to the Union, and not to the remedies for local evils which have subsequently appeared.” Katzenbach (1966)(emphasis added).

    Katzenbach, the Court acknowledges, “rejected the notion that the [equal sovereignty] principle operate[s] as a bar on differential treatment outside [the] context [of the admission of new States].” But the Court clouds that once clear understanding by citing dictum from Northwest Austin to convey that the principle of equal sovereignty “remains highly pertinent in assessing subsequent disparate treatment of States.” If the Court is suggesting that dictum in Northwest Austin silently overruled Katzenbach‘s limitation of the equal sovereignty doctrine to “the admission of new States,” the suggestion is untenable. Northwest Austin cited Katzenbach‘s holding in the course of declining to decide whether the VRA was constitutional or even what standard of review applied to the question. Northwest Austin (2009). In today’s decision, the Court ratchets up what was pure dictum in Northwest Austin, attributing breadth to the equal sovereignty principle in flat contradiction of Katzenbach. The Court does so with nary an explanation of why it finds Katzenbach wrong, let alone any discussion of whether stare decisis nonetheless counsels adherence to Katzenbach‘s ruling on the limited “significance” of the equal sovereignty principle.

    … In the Court’s conception, it appears, defenders of the VRA could not prevail upon showing what the record overwhelmingly bears out, i.e., that there is a need for continuing the preclearance regime in covered States. In addition, the defenders would have to disprove the existence of a comparable need elsewhere. I am aware of no precedent for imposing such a double burden on defenders of legislation.

    The Court has time and again declined to upset legislation of this genre unless there was no or almost no evidence of unconstitutional action by States. No such claim can be made about the congressional record for the 2006 VRA reauthorization. Given a record replete with examples of denial or abridgment of a paramount federal right, the Court should have left the matter where it belongs: in Congress’ bailiwick.

    Instead, the Court strikes § 4(b)’s coverage provision because, in its view, the provision is not based on “current conditions.” It discounts, however, that one such condition was the preclearance remedy in place in the covered jurisdictions, a remedy Congress designed both to catch discrimination before it causes harm, and to guard against return to old ways. Volumes of evidence supported Congress’ determination that the prospect of retrogression was real. Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.

    But, the Court insists, the coverage formula is no good; it is based on “decades-old data and eradicated practices.” Even if the legislative record shows, as engaging with it would reveal, that the formula accurately identifies the jurisdictions with the worst conditions of voting discrimination, that is of no moment, as the Court sees it. Congress, the Court decrees, must “star[t] from scratch.” I do not see why that should be so. …

    The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective. The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed. With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself. The same assumption — that the problem could be solved when particular methods of voting discrimination are identified and eliminated — was indulged and proved wrong repeatedly prior to the VRA’s enactment. Unlike prior statutes, which singled out particular tests or devices, the VRA is grounded in Congress’ recognition of the “variety and persistence” of measures designed to impair minority voting rights. Katzenbach (1966). In truth, the evolution of voting discrimination into more subtle second-generation barriers is powerful evidence that a remedy as effective as preclearance remains vital to protect minority voting rights and prevent backsliding.

    Beyond question, the VRA is no ordinary legislation. It is extraordinary because Congress embarked on a mission long delayed and of extraordinary importance: to realize the purpose and promise of the Fifteenth Amendment. For a half century, a concerted effort has been made to end racial discrimination in voting. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, progress once the subject of a dream has been achieved and continues to be made.

    The record supporting the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA is also extraordinary. It was described by the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee as “one of the most extensive considerations of any piece of legislation that the United States Congress has dealt with in the 27 & half; years” he had served in the House. After exhaustive evidence-gathering and deliberative process, Congress reauthorized the VRA, including the coverage provision, with overwhelming bipartisan support. It was the judgment of Congress that “40 years has not been a sufficient amount of time to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination following nearly 100 years of disregard for the dictates of the 15th amendment and to ensure that the right of all citizens to vote is protected as guaranteed by the Constitution.” That determination of the body empowered to enforce the Civil War Amendments “by appropriate legislation” merits this Court’s utmost respect. In my judgment, the Court errs egregiously by overriding Congress’ decision.

    * * *

    For the reasons stated, I would affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.


    Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee (2021)

    594 U.S. ___ (2021)

    Vote: 6-3
    Decision: Reversed
    Majority: Alito, joined by Thomas, Kavanaugh, Barrett, Roberts, and Gorsuch
    Dissent: Kagan, joined by Sotomayor, and Breyer

    JUSTICE ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

    In these cases, we are called upon for the first time to apply §2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to regulations that govern how ballots are collected and counted. Arizona law generally makes it very easy to vote. All voters may vote by mail or in person for nearly a month before election day, but Arizona imposes two restrictions that are claimed to be unlawful. First, in some counties, voters who choose to cast a ballot in person on election day must vote in their own precincts or else their ballots will not be counted. Second, mail-in ballots cannot be collected by anyone other than an election official, a mail carrier, or a voter’s family member, household member, or caregiver.

    Congress enacted the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, 79 Stat. 437, as amended, 52 U. S. C. §10301 et seq., in an effort to achieve at long last what the Fifteenth Amendment had sought to bring about 95 years earlier: an end to the denial of the right to vote based on race. Ratified in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment provides in §1 that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Section 2 of the Amendment then grants Congress the “power to enforce [the Amendment] by appropriate legislation.”

    Despite the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, the right of African-Americans to vote was heavily suppressed for nearly a century. States employed a variety of notorious methods, including poll taxes, literacy tests, property qualifications, “‘white primar[ies],’” and “‘grandfather clause[s].’”1 Challenges to some blatant efforts reached this Court and were held to violate the Fifteenth Amendment …

    Unlike other provisions of the VRA, §2 attracted relatively little attention during the congressional debates and was “little-used” for more than a decade after its passage. But during the same period, this Court considered several cases involving “vote-dilution” claims asserted under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment …

    What is now §2(b) was added, and that provision sets out what must be shown to prove a §2 violation. It requires consideration of “the totality of circumstances” in each case and demands proof that “the political processes leading to nomination or election in the State or political subdivision are not equally open to participation” by members of a protected class “in that its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.” …

    This Court first construed the amended §2 in Thornburg v. Gingles (1986)—another vote-dilution case. Justice Brennan’s opinion for the Court set out three threshold requirements for proving a §2 vote-dilution claim …”The essence of a §2 claim,” the Court said, “is that a certain electoral law, practice, or structure interacts with social and historical conditions to cause an inequality in the opportunities” of minority and non-minority voters to elect their preferred representatives. Id., at 47.

    The present dispute concerns two features of Arizona voting law, which generally makes it quite easy for residents to vote. All Arizonans may vote by mail for 27 days before an election using an “early ballot.” … No special excuse is needed … and any voter may ask to be sent an early ballot automatically in future elections, §16–544(A) (2015). In addition, during the 27 days before an election, Arizonans may vote in person at an early voting location in each county … And they may also vote in person on election day …

    Each county is free to conduct election-day voting either by using the traditional precinct model or by setting up “voting centers.” Voting centers are equipped to provide all voters in a county with the appropriate ballot for the precinct in which they are registered …

    … Voters who choose to vote in person on election day in a county that uses the precinct system must vote in their assigned precinct … If a voter goes to the wrong polling place, poll workers are trained to direct the voter to the right location. If a voter finds that his or her name does not appear on the register at what the voter believes is the right precinct, the voter ordinarily may cast a provisional ballot. Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. §16–584 (Cum. Supp. 2020). That ballot is later counted if the voter’s address is determined to be within the precinct. See ibid. But if it turns out that the voter cast a ballot at the wrong precinct, that vote is not counted. See §16–584(E); App. 37–41 …

    For those who choose to vote early by mail, Arizona has long required that “[o]nly the elector may be in possession of that elector’s unvoted early ballot.” §16–542(D). In 2016, the state legislature enacted House Bill 2023 (HB 2023), which makes it a crime for any person other than a postal worker, an elections official, or a voter’s caregiver, family member, or household member to knowingly collect an early ballot—either before or after it has been completed. §§16–1005(H)–(I).

    In 2016, the Democratic National Committee and certain affiliates brought this suit and named as defendants (among others) the Arizona attorney general and secretary of state in their official capacities. Among other things, the plaintiffs claimed that both the State’s refusal to count ballots cast in the wrong precinct and its ballot-collection restriction “adversely and disparately affect Arizona’s American Indian, Hispanic, and African American citizens,” in violation of §2 of the VRA. Democratic Nat. Comm. v. Hobbs (CA9 2020) (en banc). In addition, they alleged that the ballot-collection restriction was “enacted with discriminatory intent” and thus violated both §2 of the VRA and the Fifteenth Amendment. Ibid.

    … the District Court made extensive findings of fact and rejected all the plaintiffs’ claims, id., at 838–883. The court first found that the out-of-precinct policy “has no meaningfully disparate impact on the opportunities of minority voters to elect” representatives of their choice …

    The District Court similarly found that the ballot collection restriction is unlikely to “cause a meaningful inequality in the electoral opportunities of minorities.” Rather, the court noted, the restriction applies equally to all voters and “does not impose burdens beyond those traditionally associated with voting.” … Finally, the court found that the ballot-collection law had not been enacted with discriminatory intent …

    A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed, but an en banc court reversed …

    We begin with two preliminary matters. Secretary of State Hobbs contends that no petitioner has Article III standing to appeal the decision below as to the out-of-precinct policy, but we reject that argument. All that is needed to entertain an appeal of that issue is one party with standing, see Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania (2020) (slip op., at 13, n. 6), and we are satisfied that Attorney General Brnovich fits the bill … [T]he attorney general is authorized to represent the State in any action in federal court.

    Second, we think it prudent to make clear at the beginning that we decline in these cases to announce a test to govern all VRA §2 claims involving rules, like those at issue here, that specify the time, place, or manner for casting ballots. Each of the parties advocated a different test, as did many amici and the courts below … All told, no fewer than 10 tests have been proposed. But as this is our first foray into the area, we think it sufficient for present purposes to identify certain guideposts that lead us to our decision in these cases.

    … [B]ecause this is our first §2 time, place, or manner case, a fresh look at the statutory text is appropriate. Today, our statutory interpretation cases almost always start with a careful consideration of the text, and there is no reason to do otherwise here.

    … §2(b), which was added to win Senate approval, explains what must be shown to establish a §2 violation. Section 2(b) states that §2 is violated only where “the political processes leading to nomination or election” are not “equally open to participation” by members of the relevant protected group “in that its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.” (Emphasis added.)

    The key requirement is that the political processes leading to nomination and election (here, the process of voting) must be “equally open” to minority and non-minority groups alike, and the most relevant definition of the term “open,” as used in §2(b), is “without restrictions as to who may participate,” Random House Dictionary of the English Language 1008 (J. Stein ed. 1966), or “requiring no special status, identification, or permit for entry or participation,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1579 (1976).

    What §2(b) means by voting that is not “equally open” is further explained by this language: “in that its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”

    Putting these terms together, it appears that the core of §2(b) is the requirement that voting be “equally open.” The statute’s reference to equal “opportunity” may stretch that concept to some degree to include consideration of a person’s ability to use the means that are equally open. But equal openness remains the touchstone.

    … The provision [ §2(b)] requires consideration of “the totality of circumstances.” Thus, any circumstance that has a logical bearing on whether voting is “equally open” and affords equal “opportunity” may be considered. We will not attempt to compile an exhaustive list, but several important circumstances should be mentioned.

    1. First, the size of the burden imposed by a challenged voting rule is highly relevant. The concepts of “open[ness]” and “opportunity” connote the absence of obstacles and burdens that block or seriously hinder voting, and therefore the size of the burden imposed by a voting rule is important. After all, every voting rule imposes a burden of some sort … But because voting necessarily requires some effort and compliance with some rules, the concept of a voting system that is “equally open” and that furnishes an equal “opportunity” to cast a ballot must tolerate the “usual burdens of voting.” …

    2. For similar reasons, the degree to which a voting rule departs from what was standard practice when §2 was amended in 1982 is a relevant consideration. Because every voting rule imposes a burden of some sort, it is useful to have benchmarks with which the burdens imposed by a challenged rule can be compared. The burdens associated with the rules in widespread use when §2 was adopted are therefore useful in gauging whether the burdens imposed by a challenged rule are sufficient to prevent voting from being equally “open” or furnishing an equal “opportunity” to vote in the sense meant by §2. Therefore, it is relevant that in 1982 States typically required nearly all voters to cast their ballots in person on election day and allowed only narrow and tightly defined categories of voters to cast absentee ballots … We doubt that Congress intended to uproot facially neutral time, place, and manner regulations that have a long pedigree or are in widespread use in the United States. We have no need to decide whether adherence to, or a return to, a 1982 framework is necessarily lawful under §2, but the degree to which a challenged rule has a long pedigree or is in widespread use in the United States is a circumstance that must be taken into account.

    3. The size of any disparities in a rule’s impact on members of different racial or ethnic groups is also an important factor to consider. Small disparities are less likely than large ones to indicate that a system is not equally open. To the extent that minority and non-minority groups differ with respect to employment, wealth, and education, even neutral regulations, no matter how crafted, may well result in some predictable disparities in rates of voting and noncompliance with voting rules. But the mere fact there is some disparity in impact does not necessarily mean that a system is not equally open or that it does not give everyone an equal opportunity to vote. The size of any disparity matters. And in assessing the size of any disparity, a meaningful comparison is essential. What are at bottom very small differences should not be artificially magnified.

    4. Next, courts must consider the opportunities provided by a State’s entire system of voting when assessing the burden imposed by a challenged provision. This follows from §2(b)’s reference to the collective concept of a State’s “political processes” and its “political process” as a whole. Thus, where a State provides multiple ways to vote, any burden imposed on voters who choose one of the available options cannot be evaluated without also taking into account the other available means.

    5. Finally, the strength of the state interests served by a challenged voting rule is also an important factor that must be taken into account. As noted, every voting rule imposes a burden of some sort, and therefore, in determining “based on the totality of circumstances” whether a rule goes too far, it is important to consider the reason for the rule. Rules that are supported by strong state interests are less likely to violate §2.

    One strong and entirely legitimate state interest is the prevention of fraud. Fraud can affect the outcome of a close election, and fraudulent votes dilute the right of citizens to cast ballots that carry appropriate weight. Fraud can also undermine public confidence in the fairness of elections and the perceived legitimacy of the announced outcome. Ensuring that every vote is cast freely, without intimidation or undue influence, is also a valid and important state interest. This interest helped to spur the adoption of what soon became standard practice in this country and in other democratic nations the world round: the use of private voting booths …

    The interpretation set out above follows directly from what §2 commands: consideration of “the totality of circumstances” that have a bearing on whether a State makes voting “equally open” to all and gives everyone an equal “opportunity” to vote. The dissent, by contrast, would rewrite the text of §2 and make it turn almost entirely on just one circumstance—disparate impact.

    That is a radical project, and the dissent strains mightily to obscure its objective …

    Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act provides vital protection against discriminatory voting rules, and no one suggests that discrimination in voting has been extirpated or that the threat has been eliminated. But §2 does not deprive the States of their authority to establish non-discriminatory voting rules, and that is precisely what the dissent’s radical interpretation would mean in practice. The dissent is correct that the Voting Rights Act exemplifies our country’s commitment to democracy, but there is nothing democratic about the dissent’s attempt to bring about a wholesale transfer of the authority to set voting rules from the States to the federal courts.

    In light of the principles set out above, neither Arizona’s out-of-precinct rule nor its ballot-collection law violates §2 of the VRA. Arizona’s out-of-precinct rule enforces the requirement that voters who choose to vote in person on election day must do so in their assigned precincts. Having to identify one’s own polling place and then travel there to vote does not exceed the “usual burdens of voting.” … On the contrary, these tasks are quintessential examples of the usual burdens of voting.

    Not only are these unremarkable burdens, but the District Court’s uncontested findings show that the State made extensive efforts to reduce their impact on the number of valid votes ultimately cast. The State makes accurate precinct information available to all voters. When precincts or polling places are altered between elections, each registered voter is sent a notice showing the voter’s new polling place. … Arizona law also mandates that election officials send a sample ballot to each household that includes a registered voter who has not opted to be placed on the permanent early voter list … and this mailing also identifies the voter’s proper polling location, … In addition, the Arizona secretary of state’s office sends voters pamphlets that include information (in both English and Spanish) about how to identify their assigned precinct …

    The burdens of identifying and traveling to one’s assigned precinct are also modest when considering Arizona’s “political processes” as a whole. The Court of Appeals noted that Arizona leads other States in the rate of votes rejected on the ground that they were cast in the wrong precinct, and the court attributed this to frequent changes in polling locations, confusing placement of polling places, and high levels of residential mobility. 948 F. 3d, at 1000–1004. But even if it is marginally harder for Arizona voters to find their assigned polling places, the State offers other easy ways to vote. Any voter can request an early ballot without excuse. Any voter can ask to be placed on the permanent early voter list so that an early ballot will be mailed automatically. Voters may drop off their early ballots at any polling place, even one to which they are not assigned. And for nearly a month before election day, any voter can vote in person at an early voting location in his or her county. The availability of those options likely explains why out-of-precinct votes on election day make up such a small and apparently diminishing portion of overall ballots cast—0.47% of all ballots in the 2012 general election and just 0.15% in 2016.

    Next, the racial disparity in burdens allegedly caused by the out-of-precinct policy is small in absolute terms. The District Court accepted the plaintiffs’ evidence that, of the Arizona counties that reported out-of-precinct ballots in the 2016 general election, a little over 1% of Hispanic voters, 1% of African-American voters, and 1% of Native American voters who voted on election day cast an out-of-precinct ballot. For non-minority voters, the rate was around 0.5%. … A policy that appears to work for 98% or more of voters to whom it applies—minority and non-minority alike—is unlikely to render a system unequally open …

    Section 2 does not require a State to show that its chosen policy is absolutely necessary or that a less restrictive means would not adequately serve the State’s objectives. And the Court of Appeals’ preferred alternative would have obvious disadvantages. Partially counting out-of-precinct ballots would complicate the process of tabulation and could lead to disputes and delay. In addition, as one of the en banc dissenters noted, it would tend to encourage voters who are primarily interested in only national or state-wide elections to vote in whichever place is most convenient even if they know that it is not their assigned polling place …

    In light of the modest burdens allegedly imposed by Arizona’s out-of-precinct policy, the small size of its disparate impact, and the State’s justifications, we conclude the rule does not violate §2 of the VRA.18.

    HB 2023 likewise passes muster under the results test of §2. Arizonans who receive early ballots can submit them by going to a mailbox, a post office, an early ballot drop box, or an authorized election official’s office within the 27-day early voting period. They can also drop off their ballots at any polling place or voting center on election day, and in order to do so, they can skip the line of voters waiting to vote in person. 329 F. Supp. 3d, at 839 (citing ECF Doc. 361, ¶57). Making any of these trips—much like traveling to an assigned polling place—falls squarely within the heartland of the “usual burdens of voting.” Crawford, 553 U. S., at 198 (opinion of Stevens, J.). And voters can also ask a statutorily authorized proxy—a family member, a household member, or a caregiver—to mail a ballot or drop it off at any time within 27 days of an election.

    The plaintiffs were unable to provide statistical evidence showing that HB 2023 had a disparate impact on minority voters …

    Even if the plaintiffs had shown a disparate burden caused by HB 2023, the State’s justifications would suffice to avoid §2 liability. “A State indisputably has a compelling interest in preserving the integrity of its election process.” Purcell v. Gonzalez (2006). Limiting the classes of persons who may handle early ballots to those less likely to have ulterior motives deters potential fraud and improves voter confidence …

    As with the out-of-precinct policy, the modest evidence of racially disparate burdens caused by HB 2023, in light of the State’s justifications, leads us to the conclusion that the law does not violate §2 of the VRA.

    We also granted certiorari to review whether the Court of Appeals erred in concluding that HB 2023 was enacted with a discriminatory purpose. The District Court found that it was not, 329 F. Supp. 3d, at 882, and appellate review of that conclusion is for clear error, Pullman-Standard v. Swint (1982). If the district court’s view of the evidence is plausible in light of the entire record, an appellate court may not reverse even if it is convinced that it would have weighed the evidence differently in the first instance. Anderson v. Bessemer City (1985).”Where there are two permissible views of the evidence, the factfinder’s choice between them cannot be clearly erroneous.” Anderson v. Bessemer City (1985).

    The District Court’s finding on the question of discriminatory intent had ample support in the record …

    We are more than satisfied that the District Court’s interpretation of the evidence is permissible. The spark for the debate over mail-in voting may well have been provided by one Senator’s enflamed partisanship, but partisan motives are not the same as racial motives. See Cooper v. Harris (2017).

    The Court of Appeals did not dispute the District Court’s assessment of the sincerity of HB 2023’s proponents. It even agreed that some members of the legislature had a “sincere, though mistaken, non-race-based belief that there had been fraud in third-party ballot collection, and that the problem needed to be addressed.” The Court of Appeals nevertheless concluded that the District Court committed clear error by failing to apply a “‘cat’s paw’” theory sometimes used in employment discrimination cases …

    A “cat’s paw” is a “dupe” who is “used by another to accomplish his purposes.” … A plaintiff in a “cat’s paw” case typically seeks to hold the plaintiff ’s employer liable for “the animus of a supervisor who was not charged with making the ultimate [adverse] employment decision.” … The “cat’s paw” theory has no application to legislative bodies. The theory rests on the agency relationship that exists between an employer and a supervisor, but the legislators who vote to adopt a bill are not the agents of the bill’s sponsor or proponents. Under our form of government, legislators have a duty to exercise their judgment and to represent their constituents. It is insulting to suggest that they are mere dupes or tools.

    * * *

    Arizona’s out-of-precinct policy and HB 2023 do not violate §2 of the VRA, and HB 2023 was not enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the cases are remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

    It is so ordered.

    Justice Kagan, with whom Justice Breyer and Justice Sotomayor join, dissenting.

    If a single statute represents the best of America, it is the Voting Rights Act. It marries two great ideals: democracy and racial equality. And it dedicates our country to carrying them out. Section 2, the provision at issue here, guarantees that members of every racial group will have equal voting opportunities. Citizens of every race will have the same shot to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice. They will all own our democracy together—no one more and no one less than any other.

    If a single statute reminds us of the worst of America, it is the Voting Rights Act. Because it was—and remains—so necessary. Because a century after the Civil War was fought, at the time of the Act’s passage, the promise of political equality remained a distant dream for African American citizens. Because States and localities continually “contriv[ed] new rules,” mostly neutral on their face but discriminatory in operation, to keep minority voters from the polls. South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966). Because “Congress had reason to suppose” that States would “try similar maneuvers in the future”—“pour[ing] old poison into new bottles” to suppress minority votes. Ibid.; Reno v. Bossier Parish School Bd. (2000) (Souter, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Because Congress has been proved right.

    The Voting Rights Act is ambitious, in both goal and scope. When President Lyndon Johnson sent the bill to Congress, ten days after John Lewis led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he explained that it was “carefully drafted to meet its objective—the end of discrimination in voting in America.” H. R. Doc. No. 120, 89th Cong., 1st Sess., 1–2 (1965). He was right about how the Act’s drafting reflected its aim.

    “The end of discrimination in voting” is a far-reaching goal. And the Voting Rights Act’s text is just as far-reaching. A later amendment, adding the provision at issue here, became necessary when this Court construed the statute too narrowly. And in the last decade, this Court assailed the Act again, undoing its vital Section 5. See Shelby County v. Holder (2013). But Section 2 of the Act remains, as written, as expansive as ever—demanding that every citizen of this country possess a right at once grand and obvious: the right to an equal opportunity to vote.

    Today, the Court undermines Section 2 and the right it provides. The majority fears that the statute Congress wrote is too “radical”—that it will invalidate too many state voting laws. See ante, at 21, 25. So the majority writes its own set of rules, limiting Section 2 from multiple directions. See ante, at 16–19. Wherever it can, the majority gives a cramped reading to broad language. And then it uses that reading to uphold two election laws from Arizona that discriminate against minority voters. I could say—and will in the following pages—that this is not how the Court is supposed to interpret and apply statutes. But that ordinary critique woefully undersells the problem. What is tragic here is that the Court has (yet again) rewritten—in order to weaken—a statute that stands as a monument to America’s greatness, and protects against its basest impulses. What is tragic is that the Court has damaged a statute designed to bring about “the end of discrimination in voting.” I respectfully dissent.

    (omitted; describes the history and electoral practices that brought about the VRA.)

    Yet efforts to suppress the minority vote continue. No one would know this from reading the majority opinion. It hails the “good news” that legislative efforts had mostly shifted by the 1980s from vote denial to vote dilution. Ante, at 7. And then it moves on to other matters, as though the Voting Rights Act no longer has a problem to address—as though once literacy tests and poll taxes disappeared, so too did efforts to curb minority voting. But as this Court recognized about a decade ago, “racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history.” Bartlett v. Strickland (2009). Indeed, the problem of voting discrimination has become worse since that time—in part because of what this Court did in Shelby County. Weaken the Voting Rights Act, and predictable consequences follow: yet a further generation of voter suppression laws.

    Much of the Voting Rights Act’s success lay in its capacity to meet ever-new forms of discrimination … In that way, the Act would prevent the use of new, more nuanced methods to restrict the voting opportunities of non-white citizens.

    And for decades, Section 5 operated as intended. Between 1965 and 2006, the Department stopped almost 1200 voting laws in covered areas from taking effect. See Shelby County (2013) (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) … In reviewing mountains of such evidence in 2006, Congress saw a continuing need for Section 5. Although “discrimination today is more subtle than the visible methods used in 1965,” Congress found, it still produces “the same [effects], namely a diminishing of the minority community’s ability to fully participate in the electoral process.” H. R. Rep. No. 109–478, p. 6 (2006). Congress thus reauthorized the preclearance scheme for 25 years.

    But this Court took a different view. Finding that “[o]ur country has changed,” the Court saw only limited instances of voting discrimination—and so no further need for preclearance. Shelby County (2013). Displacing Congress’s contrary judgment, the Court struck down the coverage formula essential to the statute’s operation … But how did the majority know there was nothing more for Section 5 to do—that the (undoubted) changes in the country went so far as to make the provision unnecessary? It didn’t, as Justice Ginsburg explained in dissent. The majority’s faith that discrimination was almost gone derived, at least in part, from the success of Section 5—from its record of blocking discriminatory voting schemes. Discarding Section 5 because those schemes had diminished was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Bostock v. Clayton County (2020).

    The rashness of the act soon became evident. Once Section 5’s strictures came off, States and localities put in place new restrictive voting laws, with foreseeably adverse effects on minority voters …

    … In recent months, State after State has taken up or enacted legislation erecting new barriers to voting … Those laws shorten the time polls are open, both on Election Day and before. They impose new prerequisites to voting by mail, and shorten the windows to apply for and return mail ballots. They make it harder to register to vote, and easier to purge voters from the rolls. Two laws even ban handing out food or water to voters standing in line. Some of those restrictions may be lawful under the Voting Rights Act. But chances are that some have the kind of impact the Act was designed to prevent—that they make the political process less open to minority voters than to others.

    So the Court decides this Voting Rights Act case at a perilous moment for the Nation’s commitment to equal citizenship … Congress never meant for Section 2 to bear all of the weight of the Act’s commitments. That provision looks to courts, not to the Executive Branch, to restrain discriminatory voting practices. And litigation is an after-the-fact remedy, incapable of providing relief until an election—usually, more than one election—has come and gone. See id., at 572 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting). So Section 2 was supposed to be a back-up, for all its sweep and power. But after Shelby County, the vitality of Section 2—a “permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting”—matters more than ever. Shelby (2013) (majority opinion). For after Shelby County, Section 2 is what voters have left.

    Section 2, as drafted, is well-equipped to meet the challenge. Congress meant to eliminate all “discriminatory election systems or practices which operate, designedly or otherwise, to minimize or cancel out the voting strength and political effectiveness of minority groups.” S. Rep. No. 97–417, p. 28 (1982) (S. Rep.). And that broad intent is manifest in the provision’s broad text.

    Section 2, as relevant here, has two interlocking parts …

    Those provisions have a great many words … But their essential import is plain: Courts are to strike down voting rules that contribute to a racial disparity in the opportunity to vote, taking all the relevant circumstances into account.

    But when to conclude—looking to effects, not purposes—that a denial or abridgment has occurred? Again, answering that question is subsection (b)’s function. See supra, at 12–13. It teaches that a violation is established when, “based on the totality of circumstances,” a State’s electoral system is “not equally open” to members of a racial group. And then the subsection tells us what that means. A system is not equally open if members of one race have “less opportunity” than others to cast votes, to participate in politics, or to elect representatives. The key demand, then, is for equal political opportunity across races.

    That equal “opportunity” is absent when a law or practice makes it harder for members of one racial group, than for others, to cast ballots. When Congress amended Section 2, the word “opportunity” meant what it also does today: “a favorable or advantageous combination of circumstances” for some action. See American Heritage Dictionary, at 922. In using that word, Congress made clear that the Voting Rights Act does not demand equal outcomes. If members of different races have the same opportunity to vote, but go to the ballot box at different rates, then so be it—that is their preference, and Section 2 has nothing to say. But if a law produces different voting opportunities across races—if it establishes rules and conditions of political participation that are less favorable (or advantageous) for one racial group than for others—then Section 2 kicks in. It applies, in short, whenever the law makes it harder for citizens of one race than of others to cast a vote.

    And that is so even if (as is usually true) the law does not single out any race, but instead is facially neutral … Those laws, Congress thought, would violate Section 2, though they were not facially discriminatory, because they gave voters of different races unequal access to the political process.

    Congress also made plain, in calling for a totality-of- circumstances inquiry, that equal voting opportunity is a function of both law and background conditions—in other words, that a voting rule’s validity depends on how the rule operates in conjunction with facts on the ground … But sometimes government officials enact facially neutral laws that leverage—and become discriminatory by dint of—pre-existing social and economic conditions. The classic historical cases are literacy tests and poll taxes. A more modern example is the one Justice Scalia gave, of limited registration hours. Congress knew how those laws worked: It saw that “inferior education, poor employment opportunities, and low incomes”—all conditions often correlated with race—could turn even an ordinary-seeming election rule into an effective barrier to minority voting in certain circumstances.

    The majority’s opinion mostly inhabits a law-free zone. It congratulates itself in advance for giving Section 2’s text “careful consideration.” Ante, at 14. And then it leaves that language almost wholly behind …

    The majority instead founds its decision on a list of mostly made-up factors, at odds with Section 2 itself. To excuse this unusual free-form exercise, the majority notes that Section 2 authorizes courts to conduct a “totality of circumstances” analysis. Ante, at 16. But as described above, Congress mainly added that language so that Section 2 could protect against “the demonstrated ingenuity of state and local governments in hobbling minority voting power.” De Grandy (1994). The totality inquiry requires courts to explore how ordinary-seeming laws can interact with local conditions—economic, social, historical—to produce race-based voting inequalities. That inquiry hardly gives a court the license to devise whatever limitations on Section 2’s reach it would have liked Congress to enact. But that is the license the majority takes …

    Start with the majority’s first idea: a “[m]ere inconvenience[ ]” exception to Section 2. Ante, at 16. Voting, the majority says, imposes a set of “usual burdens”: Some time, some travel, some rule compliance. Ibid. And all of that is beneath the notice of Section 2—even if those burdens fall highly unequally on members of different races. See ibid. But that categorical exclusion, for seemingly small (or “[un]usual” or “[un]serious”) burdens, is nowhere in the provision’s text. To the contrary (and as this Court has recognized before), Section 2 allows no “safe harbor[s]” for election rules resulting in disparate voting opportunities. De Grandy (1994). The section applies to any discriminatory “voting qualification,” “prerequisite to voting,” or “standard, practice, or procedure”—even the kind creating only (what the majority thinks of as) an ordinary burden …

    And what is a “mere inconvenience” or “usual burden” anyway? The drafters of the Voting Rights Act understood that “social and historical conditions,” including disparities in education, wealth, and employment, often affect opportunities to vote. Gingles (1986). What does not prevent one citizen from casting a vote might prevent another. How is a judge supposed to draw an “inconvenience” line in some reasonable place, taking those differences into account? Consider a law banning the handing out of water to voters. No more than—or not even—an inconvenience when lines are short; but what of when they are, as in some neighborhoods, hours-long? The point here is that judges lack an objective way to decide which voting obstacles are “mere” and which are not, for all voters at all times. And so Section 2 does not ask the question.

    The majority’s “multiple ways to vote” factor is similarly flawed. Ante, at 18. True enough, a State with three ways to vote (say, on Election Day; early in person; or by mail) may be more “open” than a State with only one (on Election Day). And some other statute might care about that. But Section 2 does not. What it cares about is that a State’s “political processes” are “equally open” to voters of all races. And a State’s electoral process is not equally open if, for example, the State “only” makes Election Day voting by members of one race peculiarly difficult.

    The majority’s approach, which would ask only whether a discriminatory law “reasonably pursue[s] important state interests,” gives election officials too easy an escape from Section 2. Ante, at 25 (emphasis added). Of course preventing voter intimidation is an important state interest. And of course preventing election fraud is the same. But those interests are also easy to assert groundlessly or pretextually in voting discrimination cases. Congress knew that when it passed Section 2 …

    Just look at Arizona. Two of that State’s policies disproportionately affect minority citizens’ opportunity to vote. The first—the out-of-precinct policy—results in Hispanic and African American voters’ ballots being thrown out at a statistically higher rate than those of whites. And whatever the majority might say about the ordinariness of such a rule, Arizona applies it in extra-ordinary fashion: Arizona is the national outlier in dealing with out-of-precinct votes, with the next-worst offender nowhere in sight. The second rule—the ballot-collection ban—makes voting meaningfully more difficult for Native American citizens than for others. And nothing about how that ban is applied is “usual” either—this time because of how many of the State’s Native American citizens need to travel long distances to use the mail. Both policies violate Section 2, on a straightforward application of its text. Considering the “totality of circumstances,” both “result in” members of some races having “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect a representative of their choice.” §10301(b). The majority reaches the opposite conclusion because it closes its eyes to the facts on the ground.

    … The majority is wrong to assert that those statistics are “highly misleading.” Ante, at 28. In the majority’s view, they can be dismissed because the great mass of voters are unaffected by the out-of-precinct policy. See ibid. But Section 2 is less interested in “absolute terms” (as the majority calls them) than in relative ones. Ante, at 27; see supra, at 14–15. Arizona’s policy creates a statistically significant disparity between minority and white voters: Because of the policy, members of different racial groups do not in fact have an equal likelihood of having their ballots counted.

    Arizona’s law mostly banning third-party ballot collection also results in a significant race-based disparity in voting opportunities. The problem with that law again lies in facts nearly unique to Arizona—here, the presence of rural Native American communities that lack ready access to mail service. Given that circumstance, the Arizona statute discriminates in just the way Section 2 proscribes. The majority once more comes to a different conclusion only by ignoring the local conditions with which Arizona’s law interacts.

    The critical facts for evaluating the ballot-collection rule have to do with mail service. Most Arizonans vote by mail. But many rural Native American voters lack access to mail service, to a degree hard for most of us to fathom. Only 18% of Native voters in rural counties receive home mail delivery, compared to 86% of white voters living in those counties. See 329 F. Supp. 3d, at 836. And for many or most, there is no nearby post office. Native Americans in rural Arizona “often must travel 45 minutes to 2 hours just to get to a mailbox …” And between a quarter to a half of households in these Native communities do not have a car. See ibid. So getting ballots by mail and sending them back poses a serious challenge for Arizona’s rural Native Americans.

    For that reason, an unusually high rate of Native Americans used to “return their early ballots with the assistance of third parties.” Id., at 870 …

    Still, Arizona enacted—with full knowledge of the likely discriminatory consequences—the near-blanket ballot-collection ban challenged here.

    Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act to address a deep fault of our democracy—the historical and continuing attempt to withhold from a race of citizens their fair share of influence on the political process. For a century, African Americans had struggled and sacrificed to wrest their voting rights from a resistant Nation. The statute they and their allies at long last attained made a promise to all Americans. From then on, Congress demanded, the political process would be equally open to every citizen, regardless of race.

    This Court has no right to remake Section 2. Maybe some think that vote suppression is a relic of history—and so the need for a potent Section 2 has come and gone … But Congress gets to make that call. Because it has not done so, this Court’s duty is to apply the law as it is written. The law that confronted one of this country’s most enduring wrongs; pledged to give every American, of every race, an equal chance to participate in our democracy; and now stands as the crucial tool to achieve that goal. That law, of all laws, deserves the sweep and power Congress gave it. That law, of all laws, should not be diminished by this Court.


    Colegrove v. Green (1946)

    328 U.S. 549 (1946)

    Vote: 4-3
    Decision: Affirmed
    Plurality: Frankfurter, joined by Reed, and Burton
    Concurrence: Rutledge
    Dissent: Black, joined by Douglas, Murphy
    Not participating: Jackson

    MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER announced the judgment of the Court and an opinion in which MR. JUSTICE REED and MR. JUSTICE BURTON concur.

    … These are three qualified voters in Illinois districts which have much larger populations than other Illinois Congressional districts. They brought this suit against the Governor, the Secretary of State, and the Auditor of the State of Illinois … to restrain them, in effect, from taking proceedings for an election in November 1946, under the provisions of Illinois law governing Congressional districts. Formally, the appellants asked for a decree … declaring these provisions to be invalid because they violated various provisions of the United States Constitution … in that by reason of subsequent changes in population the Congressional districts for the election of Representatives in the Congress created by the Illinois Laws of 1901 lacked compactness of territory and approximate equality of population. …

    We are of opinion that the appellants ask of this Court what is beyond its competence to grant. … It must be resolved by considerations on the basis of which this Court, from time to time, has refused to intervene in controversies. It has refused to do so because due regard for the effective working of our Government revealed this issue to be of a peculiarly political nature and therefore not meet for judicial determination.

    The appellants urge with great zeal that the conditions of which they complain are grave evils and offend public morality. The Constitution of the United States gives ample power to provide against these evils. But due regard for the Constitution as a viable system precludes judicial correction. Authority for dealing with such problems resides elsewhere. … The short of it is that the Constitution has conferred upon Congress exclusive authority to secure fair representation by the States in the popular House and left to that House determination whether States have fulfilled their responsibility. If Congress failed in exercising its powers, whereby standards of fairness are offended, the remedy ultimately lies with the people. …

    To sustain this action would cut very deep into the very being of Congress. Courts ought not to enter this political thicket. … The Constitution has many commands that are not enforceable by courts because they clearly fall outside the conditions and purposes that circumscribe judicial action. …

    Dismissal of the complaint is affirmed.

    MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE.

    … [W]e have but recently been admonished again that it is the very essence of our duty to avoid decision upon grave constitutional questions, especially when this may bring our function into clash with the political departments of the Government, if any tenable alternative ground for disposition of the controversy is presented.

    There is one, however, in this case. And I think the gravity of the constitutional questions raised so great, together with the possibilities for collision above mentioned, that the admonition is appropriate to be followed here. Other reasons support this view …

    … The shortness of the time remaining makes it doubtful whether action could, or would, be taken in time to secure for petitioners the effective relief they seek. …

    … I think, therefore, the case is one in which the Court may properly, and should, decline to exercise its jurisdiction. Accordingly, the judgment should be affirmed and I join in that disposition of the cause.

    Mr. Justice Black, dissenting.

    The complaint alleges the following facts essential to the position I take: appellants, citizens and voters of Illinois, live in congressional election districts, the respective populations of which range from 612,000 to 914,000. Twenty other congressional election districts have populations that range from 112,116 to 385,207. In seven of these districts the population is below 200,000. The Illinois Legislature established these districts in 1901 on the basis of the Census of 1900. The Federal Census of 1910, of 1920, of 1930, and of 1940, each showed a growth of population in Illinois and a substantial shift in the distribution of population among the districts established in 1901. But up to date, attempts to have the State Legislature reapportion congressional election districts so as more nearly to equalize their population have been unsuccessful … The implication is that the issues of state and congressional apportionment are thus so interdependent that it is to the interest of state legislators to perpetuate the inequitable apportionment of both state and congressional election districts. Prior to this proceeding, a series of suits had been brought in the state courts challenging the State’s local and federal apportionment system. In all these cases, the Supreme Court of the State had denied effective relief.

    In the present suit, the complaint attacked the 1901 State Apportionment Act on the ground that it, among other things, violates Article I and the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. Appellants claim that, since they live in the heavily populated districts, their vote is much less effective than the vote of those living in a district which, under the 1901 Act, is also allowed to choose one Congressman, though its population is sometimes only one-ninth that of the heavily populated districts. Appellants contend that this reduction of the effectiveness of their vote is the result of a willful legislative discrimination against them, and thus amounts to a denial of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment … These allegations have not been denied. Under these circumstances, and since there is no adequate legal remedy for depriving a citizen of his right to vote, equity can and should grant relief.

    It is difficult for me to see why the 1901 State Apportionment Act does not deny appellants equal protection of the laws.

    The only type of case in which this Court has held that a federal district court should, in its discretion, stay its hand any more than a state court is where the question is one which state courts or administrative agencies have special competence to decide. This is not that type of question. What is involved here is the right to vote guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. It has always been the rule that, where a federally protected right has been invaded, the federal courts will provide the remedy to rectify the wrong done …

    Nor is there any more difficulty in enforcing a decree in this case than there was in the Smiley case. It is true that declaration of invalidity of the State Act and the enjoining of state officials would result in prohibiting the State from electing Congressmen under the system of the old congressional districts. But it would leave the State free to elect them from the State at large, which, as we held in the Smiley case, is a manner authorized by the Constitution. It is said that it would be inconvenient for the State to conduct the election in this manner. But it has an element of virtue that the more convenient method does not have — namely, it does not discriminate against some groups to favor others, it gives all the people an equally effective voice in electing their representatives, as is essential under a free government, and it is constitutional.

    MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS and MR. JUSTICE MURPHY join in this dissent.


    Baker v. Carr (1962)

    369 U.S. 186 (1962)

    Vote: 6-2
    Decision: Reversed
    Majority: Brennan, joined by Warren, Black, Douglas, Clark, and Stewart
    Concurrence: Douglas
    Concurrence: Clark
    Concurrence: Stewart
    Dissent: Frankfurter, joined by Harlan
    Dissent: Harlan, joined by Frankfurter

    MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

    … The complaint, alleging that by means of a 1901 statute of Tennessee apportioning the members of the General Assembly among the State’s 95 counties, “these plaintiffs and others similarly situated, are denied the equal protection of the laws accorded them by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States by virtue of the debasement of their votes,” was dismissed by a three-judge court … We hold that the dismissal was error, and remand the cause to the District Court for trial and further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

    … Tennessee’s standard for allocating legislative representation among her counties is the total number of qualified voters resident in the respective counties, subject only to minor qualifications. Decennial reapportionment in compliance with the constitutional scheme was effected by the General Assembly each decade from 1871 to 1901. … In the more than 60 years since that action, all proposals in both Houses of the General Assembly for reapportionment have failed to pass.

    Between 1901 and 1961, Tennessee has experienced substantial growth and redistribution of her population. In 1901 the population was 2,020,616, of whom 487,380 were eligible to vote. The 1960 Federal Census reports the State’s population at 3,567,089, of whom 2,092,891 are eligible to vote. The relative standings of the counties in terms of qualified voters have changed significantly. It is primarily the continued application of the 1901 Apportionment Act to this shifted and enlarged voting population which gives rise to the present controversy. …

    JUSTICIABILITY

    In holding that the subject matter of this suit was not justiciable, the District Court relied on Colegrove v. Green, and subsequent per curiam cases. The court stated: “From a review of these decisions there can be no doubt that the federal rule … is that the federal courts … will not intervene in cases of this type to compel legislative reapportionment.” We understand the District Court to have read the cited cases as compelling the conclusion that since the appellants sought to have a legislative apportionment held unconstitutional, their suit presented a “political question” and was therefore nonjusticiable. We hold that this challenge to an apportionment presents no nonjusticiable “political question.” The cited cases do not hold the contrary.

    Of course, the mere fact that the suit seeks protection of a political right does not mean it presents a political question. Such an objection “is little more than a play upon words.” Nixon v. Herndon (1927). Rather, it is argued that apportionment cases, whatever the actual wording of the complaint, can involve no federal constitutional right except one resting on the guaranty of a republican form of government, and that complaints based on that clause have been held to present political questions which are nonjusticiable.

    We hold that the claim pleaded here neither rests upon nor implicates the Guaranty Clause and that its justiciability is therefore not foreclosed by our decisions of cases involving that clause … Appellants’ claim that they are being denied equal protection is justiciable, and if “discrimination is sufficiently shown, the right to relief under the equal protection clause is not diminished by the fact that the discrimination relates to political rights.” … But because there appears to be some uncertainty as to why those cases did present political questions, and specifically as to whether this apportionment case is like those cases, we deem it necessary first to consider the contours of the “political question” doctrine.

    … The nonjusticiability of a political question is primarily a function of the separation of powers. Much confusion results from the capacity of the “political question” label to obscure the need for case-by-case inquiry. Deciding whether a matter has in any measure been committed by the Constitution to another branch of government, or whether the action of that branch exceeds whatever authority has been committed, is itself a delicate exercise in constitutional interpretation, and is a responsibility of this Court as ultimate interpreter of the Constitution. …

    … Prominent on the surface of any case held to involve a political question is found a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; or a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it; or the impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion; or the impossibility of a court’s undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government; or an unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made; or the potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question.

    Unless one of these formulations is inextricable from the case at bar, there should be no dismissal for nonjusticiability on the ground of a political question’s presence. The doctrine of which we treat is one of “political questions,” not one of “political cases.” The courts cannot reject as “no law suit” a bona fide controversy as to whether some action denominated “political” exceeds constitutional authority. …

    We come, finally, to the ultimate inquiry whether our precedents as to what constitutes a nonjusticiable “political question” bring the case before us under the umbrella of that doctrine. A natural beginning is to note whether any of the common characteristics which we have been able to identify and label descriptively are present. We find none: The question here is the consistency of state action with the Federal Constitution. We have no question decided, or to be decided, by a political branch of government coequal with this Court. Nor do we risk embarrassment of our government abroad, or grave disturbance at home if we take issue with Tennessee as to the constitutionality of her action here challenged. Nor need the appellants, in order to succeed in this action, ask the Court to enter upon policy determinations for which judicially manageable standards are lacking. Judicial standards under the Equal Protection Clause are well developed and familiar, and it has been open to courts since the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment to determine, if on the particular facts they must, that a discrimination reflects no policy, but simply arbitrary and capricious action.

    … We conclude that the complaint’s allegations of a denial of equal protection present a justiciable constitutional cause of action upon which appellants are entitled to a trial and a decision. The right asserted is within the reach of judicial protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

    The judgment of the District Court is reversed and the cause is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

    Reversed and remanded.


    Wesberry v. Sanders (1964)

    376 U.S. 1 (1964)

    Vote: 7-2
    Decision: Reversed
    Majority: Black, joined by Warren, Douglas, Brennan, White, and Goldberg
    Concur/Dissent: Clark
    Dissent: Harlan, joined by Stewart (in part)

    MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

    Appellants are citizens and qualified voters of Fulton County, Georgia, and as such are entitled to vote in congressional elections in Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. That district, one of ten created by a 1931 Georgia statute, includes Fulton, Dekalb, and Rockdale Counties and has a population according to the 1960 census of 823,680. The average population of the ten districts is 394,312, less than half that of the Fifth. One district, the Ninth, has only 272,154 people, less than one-third as many as the Fifth. Since there is only one Congressman for each district, this inequality of population means that the Fifth District’s Congressman has to represent from two to three times as many people as do Congressmen from some of the other Georgia districts.

    Claiming that these population disparities deprived them and voters similarly situated of a right under the Federal Constitution to have their votes for Congressmen given the same weight as the votes of other Georgians, the appellants brought this action …

    We agree with the District Court that the 1931 Georgia apportionment grossly discriminates against voters in the Fifth Congressional District. A single Congressman represents from two to three times as many Fifth District voters as are represented by each of the Congressmen from the other Georgia congressional districts. The apportionment statute thus contracts the value of some votes and expands that of others. If the Federal Constitution intends that when qualified voters elect members of Congress each vote be given as much weight as any other vote, then this statute cannot stand.

    We hold that, construed in its historical context, the command of Art. I, § 2, that Representatives be chosen “by the People of the several States” means that as nearly as is practicable one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s. This rule is followed automatically, of course, when Representatives are chosen as a group on a statewide basis, as was a widespread practice in the first 50 years of our Nation’s history. It would be extraordinary to suggest that in such statewide elections the votes of inhabitants of some parts of a State, for example, Georgia’s thinly populated Ninth District, could be weighted at two or three times the value of the votes of people living in more populous parts of the State, for example, the Fifth District around Atlanta. We do not believe that the Framers of the Constitution intended to permit the same vote-diluting discrimination to be accomplished through the device of districts containing widely varied numbers of inhabitants. To say that a vote is worth more in one district than in another would not only run counter to our fundamental ideas of democratic government, it would cast aside the principle of a House of Representatives elected “by the People,” a principle tenaciously fought for and established at the Constitutional Convention. The history of the Constitution, particularly that part of it relating to the adoption of Art. I, § 2, reveals that those who framed the Constitution meant that, no matter what the mechanics of an election, whether statewide or by districts, it was population which was to be the basis of the House of Representatives.

    During the Revolutionary War the rebelling colonies were loosely allied in the Continental Congress, a body with authority to do little more than pass resolutions and issue requests for men and supplies. Before the war ended the Congress had proposed and secured the ratification by the States of a somewhat closer association under the Articles of Confederation. … Farsighted men felt that a closer union was necessary if the States were to be saved from foreign and domestic dangers.

    The result was the Constitutional Convention of 1787, called for “the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. …” When the Convention met in May, this modest purpose was soon abandoned for the greater challenge of creating a new and closer form of government than was possible under the Confederation. …

    The question of how the legislature should be constituted precipitated the most bitter controversy of the Convention. …

    The dispute came near ending the Convention without a Constitution. Both sides seemed for a time to be hopelessly obstinate. Some delegations threatened to withdraw from the Convention if they did not get their way. … The deadlock was finally broken when a majority of the States agreed to what has been called the Great Compromise, based on a proposal which had been repeatedly advanced by Roger Sherman and other delegates from Connecticut. It provided on the one hand that each State, including little Delaware and Rhode Island, was to have two Senators. … The other side of the compromise was that, as provided in Art. I, § 2, members of the House of Representatives should be chosen “by the People of the several States” and should be “apportioned among the several States … according to their respective Numbers.” While those who wanted both houses to represent the people had yielded on the Senate, they had not yielded on the House of Representatives. William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut had summed it up well: “in one branch the people, ought to be represented; in the other, the States.

    The debates at the Convention make at least one fact abundantly clear: that when the delegates agreed that the House should represent “people” they intended that in allocating Congressmen the number assigned to each State should be determined solely by the number of the State’s inhabitants. The Constitution embodied Edmund Randolph’s proposal for a periodic census to ensure “fair representation of the people,” an idea endorsed by Mason as assuring that “numbers of inhabitants” should always be the measure of representation in the House of Representatives. …

    It would defeat the principle solemnly embodied in the Great Compromise—equal representation in the House for equal numbers of people—for us to hold that, within the States, legislatures may draw the lines of congressional districts in such a way as to give some voters a greater voice in choosing a Congressman than others. The House of Representatives, the Convention agreed, was to represent the people as individuals, and on a basis of complete equality for each voter. …

    It is in the light of such history that we must construe Art. I, § 2, of the Constitution, which, carrying out the ideas of Madison and those of like views, provides 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 is not surprising that our Court has held that this Article gives persons qualified to vote a constitutional right to vote and to have their votes counted. Not only can this right to vote not be denied outright, it cannot, consistently with Article I, be destroyed by alteration of ballots, or diluted by stuffing of the ballot box. No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined. Our Constitution leaves no room for classification of people in a way that unnecessarily abridges this right. In urging the people to adopt the Constitution, Madison said in No. 57 of The Federalist:

    “Who are to be the electors of the Federal Representatives? Not the rich more than the poor; not the learned more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States. …”

    Readers surely could have fairly taken this to mean, “one person, one vote.”

    While it may not be possible to draw congressional districts with mathematical precision, that is no excuse for ignoring our Constitution’s plain objective of making equal representation for equal numbers of people the fundamental goal for the House of Representatives. That is the high standard of justice and common sense which the Founders set for us.

    Reversed and remanded.


    Reynolds v. Sims (1964)

    377 U.S. 533 (1964)

    Vote: 8-1
    Decision: Affirmed
    Majority: Warren, joined by Black, Douglas, Brennan, White, and Goldberg
    Concurrences: Clark
    Concurrence: Stewart
    Dissent: Harlan

    MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT.

    Involved in these cases are an appeal and two cross-appeals from a decision of the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Alabama holding invalid, under the Equal Protection Clause of the Federal Constitution, the existing and two legislatively proposed plans for the apportionment of seats in the two houses of the Alabama Legislature, and ordering into effect a temporary reapportionment plan comprised of parts of the proposed but judicially disapproved measures.

    … The complaint alleged a deprivation of rights under the Alabama Constitution and under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment …

    Plaintiffs below alleged that the last apportionment of the Alabama Legislature was based on the 1900 federal census, despite the requirement of the State Constitution that the legislature be reapportioned decennially. They asserted that, since the population growth in the State from 1900 to 1960 had been uneven, Jefferson and other counties were now victims of serious discrimination with respect to the allocation of legislative representation. As a result of the failure of the legislature to reapportion itself, plaintiffs asserted, they were denied “equal suffrage in free and equal elections … and the equal protection of the laws” in violation of the Alabama Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. The complaint asserted that plaintiffs had no other adequate remedy, and that they had exhausted all forms of relief other than that available through the federal courts. They alleged that the Alabama Legislature had established a pattern of prolonged inaction from 1911 to the present which “clearly demonstrates that no reapportionment … shall be effected”; that representation at any future constitutional convention would be established by the legislature, making it unlikely that the membership of any such convention would be fairly representative …

    On July 21, 1962, the District Court held that the inequality of the existing representation in the Alabama Legislature violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a finding which the Court noted had been “generally conceded” by the parties to the litigation, since population growth and shifts had converted the 1901 scheme, as perpetuated some 60 years later, into an invidiously discriminatory plan completely lacking in rationality. Under the existing provisions, applying 1960 census figures, only 25.1% of the State’s total population resided in districts represented by a majority of the members of the Senate, and only 25.7% lived in counties which could elect a majority of the members of the House of Representatives. Population-variance ratios of up to about 41-to-1 existed in the Senate, and up to about 16-to-1 in the House …

    No effective political remedy to obtain relief against the alleged malapportionment of the Alabama Legislature appears to have been available. No initiative procedure exists under Alabama law. Amendment of the State Constitution can be achieved only after a proposal is adopted by three-fifths of the members of both houses of the legislature and is approved by a majority of the people, or as a result of a constitutional convention convened after approval by the people of a convention call initiated by a majority of both houses of the Alabama Legislature. …

    Undeniably the Constitution of the United States protects the right of all qualified citizens to vote, in state as well as in federal elections. A consistent line of decisions by this Court in cases involving attempts to deny or restrict the right of suffrage has made this indelibly clear. It has been repeatedly recognized that all qualified voters have a constitutionally protected right to vote. Ex parte Yarbrough (1884) … In Mosley (1915), the Court stated that it is “as equally unquestionable that the right to have one’s vote counted is as open to protection … as the right to put a ballot in a box.” The right to vote can neither be denied outright, nor destroyed by alteration of ballots, nor diluted by ballot-box stuffing. As the Court stated in Classic (1941), “Obviously included within the right to choose, secured by the Constitution, is the right of qualified voters within a state to cast their ballots and have them counted . …” Racially based gerrymandering, Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960) and the conducting of white primaries, Nixon v. Herndon (1927), both of which result in denying to some citizens their right to vote, have been held to be constitutionally impermissible. And history has seen a continuing expansion of the scope of the right of suffrage in this country. The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government. And the right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen’s vote just as effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise. …

    … the fundamental principle of representative government in this country is one of equal representation for equal numbers of people, without regard to race, sex, economic status, or place of residence within a State. Our problem, then, is to ascertain, in the instant cases, whether there are any constitutionally cognizable principles which would justify departures from the basic standard of equality among voters in the apportionment of seats in state legislatures.

    A predominant consideration in determining whether a State’s legislative apportionment scheme constitutes an invidious discrimination violative of rights asserted under the Equal Protection Clause is that the rights allegedly impaired are individual and personal in nature … While the result of a court decision in a state legislative apportionment controversy may be to require the restructuring of the geographical distribution of seats in a state legislature, the judicial focus must be concentrated upon ascertaining whether there has been any discrimination against certain of the State’s citizens which constitutes an impermissible impairment of their constitutionally protected right to vote. Like Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942), such a case “touches a sensitive and important area of human rights,” and “involves one of the basic civil rights of man,” presenting questions of alleged “invidious discriminations … against groups or types of individuals in violation of the constitutional guaranty of just and equal laws.” Undoubtedly, the right of suffrage is a fundamental matter in a free and democratic society. Especially since the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights, any alleged infringement of the right of citizens to vote must be carefully and meticulously scrutinized. Almost a century ago, in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886),the Court referred to “the political franchise of voting” as “a fundamental political right, because preservative of all rights.”

    Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests. As long as ours is a representative form of government, and our legislatures are those instruments of government elected directly by and directly representative of the people, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system. It could hardly be gainsaid that a constitutional claim had been asserted by an allegation that certain otherwise qualified voters had been entirely prohibited from voting for members of their state legislature. And, if a State should provide that the votes of citizens in one part of the State should be given two times, or five times, or 10 times the weight of votes of citizens in another part of the State, it could hardly be contended that the right to vote of those residing in the disfavored areas had not been effectively diluted. It would appear extraordinary to suggest that a State could be constitutionally permitted to enact a law providing that certain of the State’s voters could vote two, five, or 10 times for their legislative representatives, while voters living elsewhere could vote only once. And it is inconceivable that a state law to the effect that, in counting votes for legislators, the votes of citizens in one part of the State would be multiplied by two, five, or 10, while the votes of persons in another area would be counted only at face value, could be constitutionally sustainable. Of course, the effect of state legislative districting schemes which give the same number of representatives to unequal numbers of constituents is identical. Overweighting and overvaluation of the votes of those living here has the certain effect of dilution and undervaluation of the votes of those living there. The resulting discrimination against those individual voters living in disfavored areas is easily demonstrable mathematically. Their right to vote is simply not the same right to vote as that of those living in a favored part of the State. Two, five, or 10 of them must vote before the effect of their voting is equivalent to that of their favored neighbor. Weighting the votes of citizens differently, by any method or means, merely because of where they happen to reside, hardly seems justifiable. One must be ever aware that the Constitution forbids “sophisticated as well as simple-minded modes of discrimination.” …

    … [R]epresentative government is in essence self-government through the medium of elected representatives of the people, and each and every citizen has an inalienable right to full and effective participation in the political processes of his State’s legislative bodies. Most citizens can achieve this participation only as qualified voters through the election of legislators to represent them. Full and effective participation by all citizens in state government requires, therefore, that each citizen have an equally effective voice in the election of members of his state legislature. Modern and viable state government needs, and the Constitution demands, no less.

    Logically, in a society ostensibly grounded on representative government, it would seem reasonable that a majority of the people of a State could elect a majority of that State’s legislators. To conclude differently, and to sanction minority control of state legislative bodies, would appear to deny majority rights in a way that far surpasses any possible denial of minority rights that might otherwise be thought to result. Since legislatures are responsible for enacting laws by which all citizens are to be governed, they should be bodies which are collectively responsive to the popular will. And the concept of equal protection has been traditionally viewed as requiring the uniform treatment of persons standing in the same relation to the governmental action questioned or challenged. With respect to the allocation of legislative representation, all voters, as citizens of a State, stand in the same relation regardless of where they live. Any suggested criteria for the differentiation of citizens are insufficient to justify any discrimination, as to the weight of their votes, unless relevant to the permissible purposes of legislative apportionment. Since the achieving of fair and effective representation for all citizens is concededly the basic aim of legislative apportionment, we conclude that the Equal Protection Clause guarantees the opportunity for equal participation by all voters in the election of state legislators. Diluting the weight of votes because of place of residence impairs basic constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment just as much as invidious discriminations based upon factors such as race, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), or economic status, Griffin v. Illinois (1956), Douglas v. California (1963). Our constitutional system amply provides for the protection of minorities by means other than giving them majority control of state legislatures. And the democratic ideals of equality and majority rule, which have served this Nation so well in the past, are hardly of any less significance for the present and the future.

    We are told that the matter of apportioning representation in a state legislature is a complex and many-faceted one. We are advised that States can rationally consider factors other than population in apportioning legislative representation. We are admonished not to restrict the power of the States to impose differing views as to political philosophy on their citizens. We are cautioned about the dangers of entering into political thickets and mathematical quagmires. Our answer is this: a denial of constitutionally protected rights demands judicial protection; our oath and our office require no less of us. …

    To the extent that a citizen’s right to vote is debased, he is that much less a citizen. The fact that an individual lives here or there is not a legitimate reason for overweighting or diluting the efficacy of his vote. The complexions of societies and civilizations change, often with amazing rapidity. A nation once primarily rural in character becomes predominantly urban. Representation schemes once fair and equitable become archaic and outdated. But the basic principle of representative government remains, and must remain, unchanged—the weight of a citizen’s vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives. Population is, of necessity, the starting point for consideration and the controlling criterion for judgment in legislative apportionment controversies. A citizen, a qualified voter, is no more nor no less so because he lives in the city or on the farm. This is the clear and strong command of our Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. This is an essential part of the concept of a government of laws and not men. This is at the heart of Lincoln’s vision of “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people.” The Equal Protection Clause demands no less than substantially equal state legislative representation for all citizens, of all places as well as of all races.

    We hold that, as a basic constitutional standard, the Equal Protection Clause requires that the seats in both houses of a bicameral state legislature must be apportioned on a population basis. Simply stated, an individual’s right to vote for state legislators is unconstitutionally impaired when its weight is in a substantial fashion diluted when compared with votes of citizens living in other parts of the State. Since, under neither the existing apportionment provisions nor either of the proposed plans was either of the houses of the Alabama Legislature apportioned on a population basis, the District Court correctly held that all three of these schemes were constitutionally invalid. …

    Since neither of the houses of the Alabama Legislature, under any of the three plans considered by the District Court, was apportioned on a population basis, we would be justified in proceeding no further. However, one of the proposed plans, that contained in the so-called 67-Senator Amendment, at least superficially resembles the scheme of legislative representation followed in the Federal Congress. Under this plan, each of Alabama’s 67 counties is allotted one senator, and no counties are given more than one Senate seat. Arguably, this is analogous to the allocation of two Senate seats, in the Federal Congress, to each of the 50 States, regardless of population. Seats in the Alabama House, under the proposed constitutional amendment, are distributed by giving each of the 67 counties at least one, with the remaining 39 seats being allotted among the more populous counties on a population basis. This scheme, at least at first glance, appears to resemble that prescribed for the Federal House of Representatives, where the 435 seats are distributed among the States on a population basis, although each State, regardless of its population, is given at least one Congressman. Thus, although there are substantial differences in underlying rationale and result, the 67-Senator Amendment, as proposed by the Alabama Legislature, at least arguably presents for consideration a scheme analogous to that used for apportioning seats in Congress. Thus, although there are substantial differences in underlying rationale and result, the 67-Senator Amendment, as proposed by the Alabama Legislature, at least arguably presents for consideration a scheme analogous to that used for apportioning seats in Congress.

    … Much has been written … about the applicability of the so-called federal analogy to state legislative apportionment arrangements. …

    The system of representation in the two Houses of the Federal Congress is one ingrained in our Constitution, as part of the law of the land. It is one conceived out of compromise and concession indispensable to the establishment of our federal republic. Arising from unique historical circumstances, it is based on the consideration that in establishing our type of federalism a group of formerly independent States bound themselves together under one national government. … But at the heart of our constitutional system remains the concept of separate and distinct governmental entities which have delegated some, but not all, of their formerly held powers to the single national government. …

    Political subdivisions of States – counties, cities, or whatever – never were and never have been considered as sovereign entities. Rather, they have been traditionally regarded as subordinate governmental instrumentalities created by the State to assist in the carrying out of state governmental functions. … The relationship of the States to the Federal Government could hardly be less analogous.

    Thus, we conclude that the plan contained in the 67-Senator Amendment for apportioning seats in the Alabama Legislature cannot be sustained by recourse to the so-called federal analogy. Nor can any other inequitable state legislative apportionment scheme be justified on such an asserted basis. …

    Since we find the so-called federal analogy inapposite to a consideration of the constitutional validity of state legislative apportionment schemes, we necessarily hold that the Equal Protection Clause requires both houses of a state legislature to be apportioned on a population basis. The right of a citizen to equal representation and to have his vote weighted equally with those of all other citizens in the election of members of one house of a bicameral state legislature would amount to little if States could effectively submerge the equal-population principle in the apportionment of seats in the other house. …

    We find, therefore, that the action taken by the District Court in this case, in ordering into effect a reapportionment of both houses of the Alabama Legislature for purposes of the 1962 primary and general elections, by using the best parts of the two proposed plans which it had found, as a whole, to be invalid, was an appropriate and well-considered exercise of judicial power …

    … [W]e affirm the judgment below and remand the cases for further proceedings consistent with the views stated in this opinion.

    It is so ordered.



    9.3: Congressional Power to Protect Voting Rights is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?