In 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a 1969 U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision that had declared that a 1965 Indiana reapportionment statute for state legislative seats diluted the vote of minority residents in Marion County. The case, Whitcomb v. Chavis, considered whether Marion County state legislative districts were gerrymandered to “cancel out the voting strength” of Black residents. The Supreme Court decision became a landmark event in the history of racial discrimination in voting.

The plaintiffs, residents of Marion and Lake Counties, alleged that multi-member districts in Marion County were racially gerrymandered. They claimed that multi-member districts did not award voters proper representation in the state legislature. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor and declared that the majority Marion County delegation tended to vote on issues as a bloc, undermining the representation of the minority interest group and its constituents. It barred state election officials from holding 1970 elections until the legislature remedied the situation in accordance with the court’s ruling.

The Supreme Court ruled invalid the plaintiffs’ claim to unjust proportional representation. Not only had it not been proven that multi-member districts violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the court concluded, but the question at hand was political, not judicial, since the plaintiffs had not successfully proven the unconstitutionality of the district boundaries.

Writing for the majority, Justice Byron White argued that the complaint boiled down to a claim that “invidious discrimination” occurred when a poorer, majority Black section of Marion County “suffers the disaster of losing too many elections.” But the Court could find no reason why those results counted as discrimination any more than a loss by other interest groups in Marion County. “The mere fact that one interest group or another concerned with the outcome of Marion County elections has found itself outvoted and without legislative seats of its own provides no basis for invoking constitutional remedies where, as here, there is no indication that this segment of the population is being denied access to the political system.”

Although the Indiana General Assembly enacted new apportionment legislation that provided for statewide single-member house and senate districts by the time of the Supreme Court’s decision, other state legislatures watched Whitcomb v. Chavis closely. If the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, then they would have been forced to reconsider the constitutionality of their own multi-member districts.

When the U.S. Congress renewed the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 1982, Whitcomb v. Chavis and another case contributed to the amendment of Section 2. With this amendment, this section of the act no longer required plaintiffs to prove that legislators intended to harm minority votes when they crafted multi-member districts. Instead, a finding that such districts had discriminatory effects would be enough to strike them down.

Revised December 2022

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