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How the Supreme Court's 1960s ‘Redistricting Revolution’ Tackled the Rural/Urban Voting Divide

June 17, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

In the United States, where you live can affect the power of your vote. And before the era of gerrymandering, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s forced states to redraw egregiously outdated voting maps and served as an equalizing force in American democracy.

As a result of this “redistricting revolution,” Americans became more uniformly represented in their legislatures than they had in the past 50 years. The Supreme Court decisions established that the number of legislative representatives in a district or state must accurately reflect the number of people who live there.

States, some of which hadn’t redrawn their maps since in more than sixty years, were subsequently forced to update their legislative districts after every census so each district had roughly equal populations. This had a huge impact on voters in the United States—at least until computer technology ushered in a new form of gerrymandering in the late 1970s.

Gerrymandering Explained (TV-PG; 2:32)

The people behind the redistricting revolution were mostly city-dwellers who lacked equal representation with those in rural areas. “Up until that point, there was no enforceable requirement of equal-population districts redrawn after every 10 years,” says David Stebenne, a professor of history and law at The Ohio State University. “It’s not strictly speaking an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, but the people involved in this litigation can see the parallel.”

Leaders in the civil rights movement supported these cases and were aware that they would boost black voting power in the north and, hopefully, one day in the south (the redistricting revolution court cases preceded the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Stebenne thinks members of the court who decided the redistricting revolution cases were “mindful of the link” to the civil rights movement, too. (Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the majority opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, and presided over one of the more activist courts in U.S. history.)

Before 1900, states had regularly updated their districts without being told. But after the 1900 census, many states stopped redrawing their maps in order to keep political power in the hands of those who already had it: white, rural, native-born Americans.

As more people moved from rural areas to cities and suburbs over the next 60 years, rural residents gained disproportionate political power over the rest of the state. This was the case in southern …read more


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