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decided: February 25, 1970.



Author: Black

[ 397 U.S. Page 51]

 MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves the extent to which the Fourteenth Amendment and the "one man, one vote" principle apply in the election of local governmental officials. Appellants are residents and taxpayers of the Kansas City School District, one of eight separate school districts that have combined to form the Junior College District of Metropolitan Kansas City. Under Missouri law separate school districts may vote by referendum to establish a consolidated junior college district and elect six trustees to conduct and manage the necessary affairs of that district.*fn1 The state law also provides that these trustees shall be apportioned among the separate school districts on the basis of "school enumeration," defined as the number of persons between the ages of six and 20 years, who reside in each district.*fn2 In the case of the Kansas City School District this apportionment plan results in the election of three trustees, or 50% of the total number, from that district. Since that district contains approximately 60% of the total school enumeration in the junior college district,*fn3 appellants

[ 397 U.S. Page 52]

     brought suit claiming that their right to vote for trustees was being unconstitutionally diluted in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Missouri Supreme Court upheld the trial court's dismissal of the suit, stating that the "one man, one vote" principle was not applicable in this case. 432 S. W. 2d 328 (1968). We noted probable jurisdiction of the appeal, 393 U.S. 1115 (1969), and for the reasons set forth below we reverse and hold that the Fourteenth Amendment requires that the trustees of this junior college district be apportioned in a manner that does not deprive any voter of his right to have his own vote given as much weight, as far as is practicable, as that of any other voter in the junior college district.

In Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964), we held that the Constitution requires that "as nearly as is practicable one man's vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another's." Id., at 7-8. Because of this requirement we struck down a Georgia statute which allowed glaring discrepancies among the populations in that State's congressional districts. In Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964), and the companion cases,*fn4 we considered state laws that had apportioned state legislatures in a way that again showed glaring discrepancies in the number of people who lived in different legislative districts. In an elaborate opinion in Reynolds we called attention to prior cases indicating that a qualified voter has a constitutional right to vote in elections without having his vote wrongfully denied, debased, or diluted. Ex parte Siebold, 100 U.S. 371 (1880); Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651 (1884); United States v. Mosley, 238 U.S. 383 (1915); Guinn v. United States,

[ 397 U.S. Page 53238]

     U.S. 347 (1915); Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268 (1939); United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299 (1941). Applying the basic principle of Wesberry, we therefore held that the various state apportionment schemes denied some voters the right guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to have their votes given the same weight as that of other voters. Finally, in Avery v. Midland County, 390 U.S. 474 (1968), we applied this same principle to the election of Texas county commissioners, holding that a qualified voter in a local election also has a constitutional right to have his vote counted with substantially the same weight as that of any other voter in a case where the elected officials exercised "general governmental powers over the entire geographic area served by the body." Id., at 485.

Appellants in this case argue that the junior college trustees exercised general governmental powers over the entire district and that under Avery the State was thus required to apportion the trustees according to population on an equal basis, as far as practicable. Appellants argue that since the trustees can levy and collect taxes, issue bonds with certain restrictions, hire and fire teachers, make contracts, collect fees, supervise and discipline students, pass on petitions to annex school districts, acquire property by condemnation, and in general manage the operations of the junior college,*fn5 their powers are equivalent, for apportionment purposes, to those exercised by the county commissioners in Avery. We feel that these powers, while not fully as broad as those of the Midland County Commissioners,*fn6 certainly show that the trustees

[ 397 U.S. Page 54]

     perform important governmental functions within the districts, and we think these powers are general enough and have sufficient impact throughout the district to justify the conclusion that the principle which we applied in Avery should also be applied here.

This Court has consistently held in a long series of cases,*fn7 that in situations involving elections, the States are required to insure that each person's vote counts as much, insofar as it is practicable, as any other person's. We have applied this principle in congressional elections, state legislative elections, and local elections. The consistent theme of those decisions is that the right to vote in an election is protected by the United States Constitution against dilution or debasement. While the particular offices involved in these cases have varied, in each case a constant factor is the decision of the government to have citizens participate individually by ballot in the selection of certain people who carry out governmental functions. Thus in the case now before us, while the office of junior college trustee differs in certain respects from those offices considered in prior cases, it is exactly the same in the one crucial factor -- these officials are elected by popular vote.

When a court is asked to decide whether a State is required by the Constitution to give each qualified voter the same power in an election open to all, there is no discernible, valid reason why constitutional distinctions should be drawn on the basis of the purpose of the election.

[ 397 U.S. Page 55]

     If one person's vote is given less weight through unequal apportionment, his right to equal voting participation is impaired just as much when he votes for a school board member as when he votes for a state legislator. While there are differences in the powers of different officials, the crucial consideration is the right of each qualified voter to participate on an equal footing in the election process. It should be remembered that in cases like this one we are asked by voters to insure that they are given equal treatment, and from their perspective the harm from unequal treatment is the same in any election, regardless of the officials selected.

If the purpose of a particular election were to be the determining factor in deciding whether voters are entitled to equal voting power, courts would be faced with the difficult job of distinguishing between various elections. We cannot readily perceive judicially manageable standards to aid in such a task. It might be suggested that equal apportionment is required only in "important" elections, but good judgment and common sense tell us that what might be a vital election to one voter might well be a routine one to another. In some instances the election of a local sheriff may be far more important than the election of a United States Senator. If there is any way of determining the importance of choosing a particular governmental official, we think the decision of the State to select that official by popular vote is a strong enough indication that the choice is an important one. This is so because in our country popular election has traditionally been the method followed when government by the people is most desired.

It has also been urged that we distinguish for apportionment purposes between elections for "legislative" officials and those for "administrative" officers. Such a suggestion would leave courts with an equally unmanageable

[ 397 U.S. Page 56]

     principle since governmental activities "cannot easily be classified in the neat categories favored by civics texts," Avery, supra, at 482, and it must also be rejected. We therefore hold today that as a general rule, whenever a state or local government decides to select persons by popular election to perform governmental functions, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that each qualified voter must be given an equal opportunity to participate in that election, and when members of an elected body are chosen from separate districts, each district must be established on a basis that will insure, as far as is practicable, that equal numbers of voters can vote for proportionally equal numbers of officials. It is of course possible that there might be some case in which a State elects certain functionaries whose duties are so far removed from normal governmental activities and so disproportionately affect different groups that a popular election in compliance with Reynolds, supra, might not be required, but certainly we see nothing in the present case that indicates that the activities of these trustees fit in that category. Education has traditionally been a vital governmental function, and these trustees, whose election the State has opened to all qualified voters, are governmental officials in every relevant sense of that term.

In this particular case the "one man, one vote" principle is to some extent already reflected in the Missouri statute. That act provides that if no one or more of the component school districts has 33 1/3% or more of the total enumeration of the junior college district, then all six trustees are elected at large. If, however, one or more districts has between 33 1/3% and 50% of the total enumeration, each such district elects two trustees and the rest are elected at large from the remaining districts.

[ 397 U.S. Page 57]

     Similarly, if one district has between 50% and 66 2/3% of the enumeration it elects three trustees, and if one district has more than 66 2/3% it elects four trustees.*fn8 This scheme thus allocates increasingly more trustees to large districts as they represent an increasing proportion of the total enumeration.

Although the statutory scheme reflects to some extent a principle of equal voting power, it does so in a way that does not comport with constitutional requirements. This is so because the Act necessarily results in a systematic discrimination against voters in the more populous school districts. This discrimination occurs because whenever a large district's percentage of the total enumeration falls within a certain percentage range it is always allocated the number of trustees corresponding to the bottom of that range. Unless a particular large district has exactly 33 1/3%, 50%, or 66 2/3% of the total enumeration it will always have proportionally fewer trustees than the small districts. As has been pointed out, in the case of the Kansas City School District approximately 60% of the total enumeration entitles that district to only 50% of the trustees. Thus while voters in large school districts may frequently have less effective voting power than residents of small districts, they can never have more. Such built-in discrimination against voters in large districts cannot be sustained as a sufficient ...

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