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Baker v. Carr

"Baker versus Carr" is a landmark Supreme Court case from 1962 that tackled the issue of vote equality. The ruling declared that redistricting was a justiciable issue, meaning federal courts could decide on it. This decision opened the door for future cases about equal representation in districting, shaping the structure of US political government.

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Video transcript

- [Kim] Hi, this is Kim from Khan Academy. Today we're learning more about Baker versus Carr. A landmark supreme court case decided in 1962. Baker versus Carr grappled with an incredibly important issue. Whether one person's vote is equal to another person's vote. That seems pretty straight forward to us now, but as we'll learn in this video, before Baker versus Carr, it wasn't always the case. To learn more, I talked with two experts. Theodore Olson is a partner at the law firm of Gibson Dunn, and served as solicitor general of the United States from 2001 to 2004. Charles is the Edward Ellen Schwarzman professor of law and the founding director of the Duke Law Center on law, race, and politics. Mr. Olson, could you kind of set the stage for us. What was the overall historical and political context that led up to the issues of Baker versus Carr. - [Olson] Well, it is a very, very important decision. Earl Warrent who was chief justice at the time the case was decided later said that it was one of the most important decisions of his tenure as chief justice. Prior to the decision in Baker versus Carr, and a couple of subsequent decisions, legislatures throughout the country were organized in a way based upon geography and other considerations rather than population. We take the phrase one person, one vote for granted now. But prior to that time, rural counties particularly, all over the United States, dominated state legislators and individuals in cities, particularly, might be electing one representative when a rural county or a rural geographical area, much smaller in terms of population, would also have the same amount of votes. So there was a disproportionate weight to smaller communities based upon population, which had very significant political consequences with respect to allocation of money and resources and the like. - [Charles] So in the US we draw lines as a way of aggregating voters together so that way we can elect people to various representative bodies. So the process of doing so, drawing the lines, is called, depending on when it's done, reapportionment or redistricting or districting. So we draw lines through districts for the purposes of representation. And that has been the practice in the US for basically time immemorial, but the way of districting for the purpose of representation. Well, many states, especially in the late 19th century to early 20th century, refused. They drew the lines, in the case of Tennessee, they drew the line in 1901. That was the last time they reapportioned where they counted the number of voters in the state and then they decided how many voters were going to be in each particular district. So a lot of time has passed from 1901 to when the case was decided in 1961, and many people moved from the rural areas to the urban areas, or from the rural areas to the suburbs, and the districts were just not equal. There weren't the same number of voters in each particular district. - [Kim] So this case took place originally in Tennessee and was brought by a man named Charles Baker. So who was Charles Baker and why did he object to how districting was done in Tennessee? - [Olson] Well he was among a group of citizens in a way, like many other supreme court cases, it's an accident that his name is the one by which we remember the case. So he came together, along with some lawyers and other citizens in this Tennessee area, and brought the case because of they listed the participants as plaintiffs alphabetically, Mr. Baker was the first one on the list and he became the plaintiff. There were a group of citizens in Tennessee, he was on the board of judicial body in Tennessee, but he was among several citizens who objected to the way the state legislature was apportioned. - [Instructor] Suppose that we have a class term. I'd say we have an AP history class and we're deciding I want to take the class out to dinner and we're making two decisions, a seafood place or a steak place. Let's suppose that we have 10 people in the class and we have three districts, all right. So we're gonna make it when the basis of the decision of those three districts. Okay, so we've got one district of two people who like seafood, another district of two others who like seafood, and a district of six people who like steak, all right. But we're gonna decide on the basis of the votes of each of the districts and the outcome, the majority of the votes in the district will decide the outcome. So remember the first district had two people and both of those people like seafood. Our second district also had two people, and both of those like seafood. And our third district had six people, and those six like steak. Now, on the basis of the decision of the district, right, so each district counts for one vote, seafood wins two to one, all right. But, if you look at the total number of people and the total preferences, there are actually six people who like steak and four people who like seafood. So really, the decision should be in favor of steak as the majority of the people or the voters in that classroom preferred steak over seafood. But we can rejigger that outcome by just dividing the people into districts and dividing them into unequal districts, and then saying each district gets one vote. Well, for all intents and purposes, this is exactly what Tennessee had done. They basically divided the state into districts so that way, and elect representatives from that district. But some districts only had let's say 100 people, and others had 1,000 people, and some had 400, some had 10,000, I'm making up the numbers here, but just to give you an example of what the disparities were like. But each counted essentially as one. Each district had one vote, even though they weren't equal in the number of people that were in the district. When a student comes to me and says, well, wait a minute, there are many more people who prefer steak, it's a majority. I'm not going to change the system because the system reflects my preferences and it was the same thing in Tennessee. The state legislature did not have the incentive to change the system because if they did they would lose their seats. - [Kim] So it's pretty quirky. This is of course, the supreme court is turning to the Constitution for its interpretation. So what does the Constitution say about apportioning representatives? Does it make any mention of how districts are supposed the be drawn? - [Olson] It does not. It's very interesting that our Constitution, as everyone knows, gives two senators for each state and then apportions the house of representatives by district, which is required to be redetermined every 10 years after the census. But, prior to Baker versus Carr, there was very little regard to the fact that some districts were more populous than other districts, which meant that an individual voter in a populous district, who had the same amount, had a vote, that was diluted in a sense that he shared that vote, or that weight of his vote with many more persons. And this was rampant all over the United States. In California, Los Angeles County had, which was 40 percent of the population of the state of California, had one representative because it was a county and it had lots of people in it. And then there were three smaller counties who had very, very few people, maybe had 10 or 15,000 people in the county, and they each had one vote as well. - [Kim] So Charles Baker takes this case to the courts, and then what happens? How does this case make its way through the courts? - [Charles] Well, the one thing to think about, the reason why Baker versus Carr is such an important case, we have to remember that the federal courts and particulars through the United States Supreme Court had said in a case called Colegrove versus Green, look, we, the federal courts, are not going to involve ourselves in any of these redistricting type cases. We don't wanna have anything to do with them. We don't believe we have the power to hear them, so in '46, the court said we don't have the power to hear these cases and no matter what happens, those are cases that belong to the political process. Those are not cases that belong in the federal courts. And large part, an important part because we don't think the constitution has anything to say about those cases. - [Olson] So when it got to the supreme court again in Baker versus Carr, the question was whether the court would reverse that earlier decision and decide this is something that we, as a court, can deal with as opposed to something that must remain in the political realm. And the case was argued twice, in April of 1961 and again in October of 1961. The court set it for rearguement because the first time it was argued, one of the justices was undecided and they were divided four to four and they decided to set it for reargument again. And when the case was then decided after the second argument, the court ruled six to two. One of the justices became disabled at the end of the deliberation, so it was only eight rather than nine. But they decided six to two the narrow, relatively narrow question, not one person one vote, but the narrow question is this something that the Constitution gives us permission to decide. And reciting the 14th amendment to the Constitution which contains the well known due process and equal protection clause, the court and Baker versus Carr decided we can look at the Constitution to discern from the equal protection clause that there is, and due process clause, but mostly the equal protection clause, there is a basis for us to decide that it might violate an individuals constitutional right to equal protection of the laws. If they're placed in a political situation where their vote counts less than someone else's vote. - [Charles] And so that's the way that the court got around that question. And the technical legal term is to say that these cases are justiciable, which means that the courts can hear them, that the federal courts have the power to decide these types of cases. Now, the court did not decide the second question in Baker versus Carr, which is okay. Suppose that it's true, right, which if the court says it's so, it is now true, that federal courts do have the power to make those decisions, how do we determine what is the standard that we're going to use to determine whether the constitution is violated? And that question the court put off to the side. The court said something to the effect that look, we know that there are standards, they are available. What we're deciding now is that we have the power because the equal protection clause, in fact, means that the state can't draw lines that are so malapportioned that they undermine the equality of voters. - [Kim] Baker versus Carr says that the courts then can rule on redistricting. Did this bring in a flood of cases about redistricting? - [Olson] It did. Once the court decided that this was fair game, that this was appropriate for courts to consider whether or not disparities in voting power as a result of packing people into different districts in different ways constituted a violation of the Constitution, then in a relatively short term by supreme court standards in 1963 and 1964 and other decisions that all came about before the end of the '60's. The court pronounced in case after case that one person, one vote did indeed have to, was required by the Constitution. So, Baker versus Carr opened the door for a stream of decisions from the supreme court that put into our constitutional fabric the concept of one person one vote. Which changed probably more than anything, the structure of our political government in the United States. - [Kim] Do you think that our election system today conforms to this standard of one person one vote? - [Olson] Well, we probably haven't solved all of the problems, but compared to where we were in 1961 before Baker versus Carr, we've really crossed that rubicon. Most districts are relatively equal. There is a census every 10 years so that we can count the number of persons in districts. There's still cases that come along, there are cases involving the allocation of persons by race and whether there are systems in place that discriminate on the basis of race. - [Charles] Some states have passed laws requiring voters to present photo identification when the voter goes to vote at the polling place. And one objection to the photo ID is that it's a violation of the equal protection clause. It's a violation of the idea of of equality that voters are not being treated equally via 71 and other because some voters have voter ID's and others have a hard time getting them for whatever reason. And there are some, there might be racial disproportionate effects, might be class effects, there might be gender effects. So this raises a violation of the equal protection clause and these are the types of arguments that are now available to someone challenging the problem of inequality in voting pose after Baker v. Carr that were not available before that Baker versus Carr. And to fully answer your question, some people might be say look, we don't fully have one person one vote because we have a lot of laws that treat voters unequally. - [Olson] If the political party A, controls both houses of a legislature in a particular state and the person who's in the governors mansion, then those lines can be drawn to favor that political party. So that you might have situations where a political party maybe only has 40 percent of the registered voters in a particular state, but maybe 55 percent of the elected representatives. That's called political gerrymandering. And those issues have come before the court. - [Charles] We still haven't achieved the type of equality that was promised by the Baker line of cases. - [Kim] So we've learned that in Baker versus Carr the supreme court ruled that redistricting was a justiciable issue, or something that the federal courts could decide because ensuring that votes have equal weight is important to ensuring equal protection under the law. The standard of one person, one vote opened the flood gate for cases about equality of representation in districting which are still being litigated at the supreme court today. To learn more about Baker versus Carr, visit the National Constitution Center's interactive Constitution and Khan Academy's resources on US government and politics.