In 1963, while preparing for his speech at the March on Washington, John Lewis saw a photo in The New York Times of a group of black women demonstrators in Rhodesia holding signs that read: one man, one vote. The 23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) adopted the phrase as a rallying cry against the disenfranchisement of black Americans in the segregated South.
“‘One man, one vote’ is the African cry,” Lewis said at the Lincoln Memorial. “It is ours, too. It must be ours.” Following the March on Washington, SNCC made “One man, one vote” its official slogan.
At the same time as Lewis’s speech, “One man, one vote” was being debated before the nation’s highest court. For decades, elected offices in many places were not based on equal population, giving conservative lawmakers from rural areas far more influence than liberal lawmakers from urban areas. “In the American South,” wrote Douglas Smith in On Democracy’s Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought “One Person, One Vote” to the United States, “malapportionment served as a cornerstone of white supremacy, ensuring the overrepresentation of the most ardent segregationists and thus further delaying the realization of civil and voting rights for African Americans.”
While literacy tests and poll taxes kept African Americans from registering to vote, malapportionment helped preserve the power of segregationists in places like Lowndes County, Alabama, which in early 1965 was 80 percent black but didn’t have a single registered African American. The county’s 15,417 residents had as many representatives in the Alabama Senate as the 600,000 residents of Birmingham’s Jefferson County.
The Supreme Court ended this perversion of democracy in a series of landmark cases in the 1960s, most notably Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims, ruling that legislative districts had to be roughly equal in population. “The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing—one person, one vote,” wrote Justice William Douglas. Chief Justice Earl Warren famously added, “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres.” The Court’s rulings shifted power from rural to urban areas, where people actually lived. In tandem with the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, the “one person, one vote” cases led to “the greatest peace-time change in representation in the history of the United States,” wrote Harvard University political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and James Snyder. Warren called it his most important achievement on the bench.
But on December 8, the Supreme Court will hear a new challenge to “One person, one vote” in Evenwel v. Abbott, brought by the same conservative organization, the Project on Fair Representation, responsible for the gutting of the VRA in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder. The obscure Evenwel case, which challenges the drawing of State Senate districts in Texas, will have major ramifications for political representation in the United States.