The decision relied on a number of precedents, including one from Alabama, Gomillion v. Lightfoot. In 1960 the Court ruled in favor of Charles Gomillion, a black civil rights leader from Tuskegee who challenged a municipal redistricting that reduced the strength of the black voting community. In the decision, mirrored in Baker, the Court found that the state had a responsibility to preserve constitutional rights in municipal decisions. The rulings in Gomillion and Baker stated that the federal government had the authority to intervene in state government to preserve political equality. African Americans now had a powerful weapon to fight for the franchise.
Within a month, a federal court in Georgia drew on Baker to strike down the most notorious voting system in the South, Georgia’s infamous county unit system. In an attempt to preserve the political power of conservative, majority-white electorates, state leaders gave each county a “unit” vote, awarded to the political candidate who won a plurality of the votes in any given election. The system gave small rural counties the same political power as growing urban population centers. The federal decision, handed down in June 1962, failed to overturn the county-based voting system as a whole, but the court warned that the state’s voting provisions had “led to rural political control and had virtually nullified the power of Negroes, liberals and middle-of-the-road voters.” Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy praised the fairness of the ruling and warned that “the same unfair situation exists in many other states.”
Despite Gomillion and Baker, Alabama failed to address its own malapportionment. Like Tennessee, Georgia, and other southern states, Alabama’s rural counties had decreased in population as urban centers like Huntsville, Birmingham, and Mobile boomed. By the mid-1960s, voting districts outlined by the state’s 1901 constitution were woefully outdated. In 1964 the Supreme Court handed down Reynolds v. Sims, a sweeping denunciation of the state’s voting system in a broad case that also involved plaintiffs from New York, Colorado, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. Chief Justice Earl Warren argued that “[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 whatever their home may be in that geographical unit.” Alabama’s failure to update its congressional apportionment had “resulted in a minority strangle hold [sic] on the state Legislature.”
The ruling challenged policies of gerrymandering and creative construction that attempted to create political minorities among certain segments of the population. In trying to weaken urban areas with majority black and liberal voters, conservative state officials denied the right to a free and fair election to a substantial group. Chief Justice Warren enunciated a core tenet of the struggle for African American enfranchisement: “The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to the 15th, 17th and 19th Amendments can mean only one thing—one person, one vote.” As civil rights activists turned to the federal government for legislation that would protect basic human rights, the vote became an essential weapon in the fight for equality. The Supreme Court’s decision in Baker v. Carr, along with subsequent rulings, empowered the federal government to provide much needed assistance in the struggle for voting rights.