Malapportioned Districts

The first version of the VRA was insufficient to prevent efforts to continue vote dilution. Many areas had a winner-take-all, at-large electoral system, as well as severely malapportioned districts. Malapportioning, also known as “gerrymandering,” is the deliberate rearrangement of the boundaries of congressional districts with the intent to influence the outcome of elections. Gerrymandering either concentrates opposition votes in a few districts to gain more seats for the majority in surrounding districts (a process called packing) or diffuses minority votes across many districts (called dilution). The term came about in 1812 when Massachusetts’s governor Elbridge Gerry created a district for political purposes that resembled a salamander.

The at-large electoral system where representatives are chosen area-wide dilutes minority voting strength because whites so frequently outnumber blacks. In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of White v. Register ruled that at-large elections were unconstitutional if they diluted or minimized minority votes.

In terms of malapportionment, there were problems of state legislatures adhering to outmoded rural interests. For example, in the 1962 case Baker v. Carr, malapportionment claims from some of Tennessee’s big cities were found justifiable under the Fourteenth Amendment. Baker v. Carr involved apportionment schemes whereby less populated rural counties had obtained disproportionate political strength as opposed to the densely populated cities.

Such malapportionment procedures became tinged with racism as redistricting practices maximized the political advantage or votes of one group and minimized the political advantage or votes of another. In Gomillion v. Lightfoot, the board of supervisors in Tuskegee, Alabama, annexed territory to increase the size of the city, but excluded all the blacks around the city. The Supreme Court found that such racial gerrymandering violated constitutional guarantees. A related case, Reynolds v. Sims put a stop to a gerrymandering scheme that discriminated heavily against populated urban areas in favor of rural areas and small towns. Through such cases, the U.S. Supreme Court advanced toward the goal of full and effective participation by all citizens in state government.

Inside Malapportioned Districts