Gray v. Sanders

372 U. S. 368

Case Year: 1963

Case Ruling: 8-1, Vacated and Remanded

Opinion Justice: Douglas

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Black, Brennan, Clark, Frankfurter, Stewart, Warren, Whittaker


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Stewart


1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Harlan


2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


James O'Hear Sanders, a qualified voter of the city of Atlanta and of Fulton County in Georgia, filed suit against officials of the Georgia Democratic Party and against the Georgia secretary of state, claiming that the Georgia county unit system violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The system was used to count votes in Democratic primary elections for U.S. senator and statewide officials. Georgia at this time was a one-party state, and the winner of the primary invariably became the eventual winner of the office. Under the challenged system, each county was given a number of unit votes. The candidate who received the most popular votes was awarded all of the county's unit votes. Unit votes were allocated to the counties on the basis of the following formula: Counties received two units for the first 0 to 15,000 residents; an additional unit was allotted for the next 5,000 persons; another unit was given for the next 10,000 persons; still another unit was awarded for each of the next two brackets of 15,000 persons; and, thereafter, two more units were given for each increase of 30,000 persons. In order to be nominated in the first primary, a candidate had to win a majority of county unit votes and a majority of the popular vote. If there were only two candidates in the primary, and they tied in the number of unit votes won, the candidate with the most popular votes was declared the winner. If no candidate met the requirements to win the primary, a run-off primary was held between the candidate with the most unit votes and the candidate with the most popular votes. In that second primary election, the candidate taking the most unit votes was the winner. If the two candidates tied in the number of unit votes won, the winner of the popular vote was declared the winner of the party's nomination.

Sanders claimed that the county unit vote formula violated the Fourteenth Amendment because it did not treat all citizens equally. Instead, as counties grew in population, each additional resident contributed less to the number of unit votes assigned to the county. The result was disproportionate voting strength given to small counties. For example, a combination of counties containing only one-third the state's population controlled a majority of the unit votes.

A federal district court struck down the state's county unit system as then structured. However, the court did not outlaw all weighted voting. Instead, it ruled that a county unit system could be used if the system showed no greater disparity among counties than the disparity that existed among states in the federal electoral college system. The Supreme Court granted review. Attorney General Robert Kennedy made a special appearance before the justices, arguing as a friend of the Court against the county unit system.



... On the merits we take a different view of the nature of the problem than did the District Court.

This case, unlike Baker v. Carr, does not involve a question of the degree to which the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits the authority of a State Legislature in designing the geographical districts from which representatives are chosen either for the State Legislature or for the Federal House of Representatives. Nor does it include the related problems of Gomillion v. Lightfoot, where "gerrymandering" was used to exclude a minority group from participation in municipal affairs. Nor does it present the question, inherent in the bicameral form of our Federal Government, whether a State may have one house chosen without regard to population. The District Court, however, analogized Georgia's use of the county unit system in determining the results of a statewide election to phases of our federal system. It pointed out that under the electoral college, required by Art. II, 1, of the Constitution and the Twelfth Amendment in the election of the President, voting strength "is not in exact proportion to population.... Recognizing that the electoral college was set up as a compromise to enable the formation of the Union among the several sovereign states, it still could hardly be said that such a system used in a state among its counties, assuming rationality and absence of arbitrariness in end result, could be termed invidious."...

Accordingly the District Court as already noted held that use of the county unit system in counting the votes in a statewide election was permissible "if the disparity against any county is not in excess of the disparity that exists against any state in the most recent electoral college allocation."... Moreover the District Court held that use of the county unit system in counting the votes in a statewide election was permissible "if the disparity against any county is not in excess of the disparity that exists ... under the equal proportions formula for representation of the several states in the Congress."... The assumption implicit in these conclusions is that since equality is not inherent in the electoral college and since precise equality among blocs of votes in one State or in the several States when it comes to the election of members of the House of Representatives is never possible, precise equality is not necessary in statewide elections.

We think the analogies to the electoral college, to districting and redistricting, and to other phases of the problems of representation in state or federal legislatures or conventions are inapposite. The inclusion of the electoral college in the Constitution, as the result of specific historical concerns, validated the collegiate principle despite its inherent numerical inequality, but implied nothing about the use of an analogous system by a State in a statewide election. No such specific accommodation of the latter was ever undertaken, and therefore no validation of its numerical inequality ensued. Nor does the question here have anything to do with the composition of the state or federal legislature. And we intimate no opinion on the constitutional phases of that problem beyond what we said in Baker v. Carr. The present case is only a voting case.... Georgia gives every qualified voter one vote in a statewide election; but in counting those votes she employs the county unit system which in end result weights the rural vote more heavily than the urban vote and weights some small rural counties heavier than other larger rural counties....

The Fifteenth Amendment prohibits a State from denying or abridging a Negro's right to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment does the same for women. If a State in a statewide election weighted the male vote more heavily than the female vote or the white vote more heavily than the Negro vote; none could successfully contend that that discrimination was allowable.... How then can one person be given twice or ten times the voting power of another person in a state-wide election merely because he lives in a rural area or because he lives in the smallest rural county? Once the geographical unit for which a representative is to be chosen is designated, all who participate in the election are to have an equal vote--whatever their race, whatever their sex, whatever their occupation, whatever their income, and wherever their home may be in that geographical unit. This is required by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The concept of "we the people" under the Constitution visualizes no preferred class of voters but equality among those who meet the basic qualifications. The idea that every voter is equal to every other voter in his State, when he casts his ballot in favor of one of several competing candidates, underlies many of our decisions.

The Court has consistently recognized that all qualified voters have a constitutionally protected right "to cast their ballots and have them counted at Congressional elections." United States v. Classic.... Every voter's vote is entitled to be counted once. It must be correctly counted and reported. As stated in United States v. Mosley, "the right to have one's vote counted" has the same dignity as "the right to put a ballot in a box." It can be protected from the diluting effect of illegal ballots. Ex parte SieboldUnited States v. Saylor. And these rights must be recognized in any preliminary election that in fact determines the true weight a vote will have.... The concept of political equality in the voting booth contained in the Fifteenth Amendment extends to all phases of state elections ... ; and, as previously noted, there is no indication in the Constitution that homesite or occupation affords a permissible basis for distinguishing between qualified voters within the State.

The only weighting of votes sanctioned by the Constitution concerns matters of representation, such as the allocation of Senators irrespective of population and the use of the electoral college in the choice of a President. Yet when Senators are chosen, the Seventeenth Amendment states the choice must be made "by the people." Minors, felons, and other classes may be excluded.... But once the class of voters is chosen and their qualifications specified, we see no constitutional way by which equality of voting power may be evaded.... 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. While we agree with the District Court on most phases of the case and think it was right in enjoining the use of the county unit system in tabulating the votes, we vacate its judgment and remand the case so that a decree in conformity with our opinion may be entered.

It is so ordered.


... At the core of Georgia's diffusion of voting strength which favors the small as against the large counties is the urban-rural problem, so familiar in the American political scene. In my dissent in Baker v. Carr, I expressed the view that a State might rationally conclude that its general welfare was best served by apportioning more seats in the legislature to agricultural communities than to urban centers, lest the legitimate interests of the former be submerged in the stronger electoral voice of the latter. In my opinion, recognition of the same factor cannot be deemed irrational in the present situation, even though all of the considerations supporting its use in a legislative apportionment case are not present here.

Given the undeniably powerful influence of a state governor on law and policy making, I do not see how it can be deemed irrational for a State to conclude that a candidate for such office should not be one whose choice lies with the numerically superior electoral strength of urban voters. By like token, I cannot consider it irrational for Georgia to apply its County Unit System to the selection of candidates for other statewide offices in order to assure against a predominantly "city point of view" in the administration of the State's affairs. On the existing record, this leaves the question of "irrationality" in this case to be judged on the basis of pure arithmetic. The Court by its "one person, one vote" theory in effect avoids facing up to that problem, but the District Court did face it, holding that the disparities in voting strength between the largest county (Fulton) and the four smallest counties (Webster, Glascock, Quitman, and Echols), running respectively 8 to 1, 10 to 1, 11 to 1, and 14 to 1 in favor of the latter, were invidiously discriminatory. But it did not tell us why. I do not understand how, on the basis of these mere numbers, unilluminated as they are by any of the complex and subtle political factors involved, a court of law can say, except by judicial fiat, that these disparities are in themselves constitutionally invidious.

The disproportions in the Georgia County Unit System are indeed not greatly out of line with those existing under the Electoral College count for the Presidency. The disparity in population per Electoral College vote between New York (the largest State in the 1960 census) and Alaska (the smallest) was about 5 to 1. There are only 15 Georgia counties, out of a total of 159, which have a greater disparity per unit vote, and of these 15 counties 4 have disparity of less than 6 to 1. It is thus apparent that a slight modification of the Georgia plan could bring it within the tolerance permitted in the federal scheme....

What then should be the test of "rationality" in this judicially unfamiliar field? ... I think a formulation of the basic ground rules in this untrod area of judicial competence should await a fully developed record.... Surely, if the Court's "one person, one vote" ideology is constitutionally untenable, as I think it clearly is, the basic ground rules implementing Baker v. Carrshould await the trial of this or some other case in which we have before us a fully developed record. Only then can we know what we are doing.... A matter which so profoundly touches the barriers between federal judicial and state legislative authority demands nothing less. I would vacate the judgment of the District Court and remand the case for trial.