Bolden and other residents of Mobile, Alabama brought a class action on behalf of all black citizens in Mobile, arguing that the practice of electing the City Commissioners at-large unfairly diluted the voting strength of black citizens.
At-large electoral schemes are invalid only if there is proof of intentional discrimination.
Bolden and other residents of Mobile, Alabama brought a class action on behalf of all black citizens in Mobile, arguing that the practice of electing the City Commissioners at-large unfairly diluted the voting strength of black citizens. The City Commission consists of 3 members elected by the voters of the city at-large, which is the same basic electoral system that is followed by thousands of municipalities and other local governmental units throughout the nation. The constitutional objection to multimember districts is the lack of representation multimember districts afford various elements of the voting population in a system of representative legislative democracy. Specifically, criticism of multimember districts is rooted in their winner-take-all aspects, their tendency to submerge minorities, and a general preference for legislatures to reflect community interests as closely as possible.
Did the at-large system violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
No, the at-large system does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Under the Equal Protection Clause, if a classification impinges upon a fundamental right explicitly or implicitly protected by the Constitution, strict judicial scrutiny is required, regardless of whether the infringement was intentional. Our cases recognize a fundamental right to equal electoral participation that encompasses protection against vote dilution. Proof of discriminatory purpose is thus not required to support a claim of vote dilution. The plurality’s requirement of proof of intentional discrimination represents an attempt to bury the legitimate concerns of the minority “beneath the soil of a doctrine almost as impermeable as it is specious.”
A proper test should focus on the objective effects of the political decision rather than the subjective motivation of the decisionmaker.
Multimember legislative districts are not per se unconstitutional. Such legislative apportionments only violate the Equal Protection Clause if they were conceived or operated as a purposeful device to further racial discrimination. In other words, facially neutral actions are unconstitutional only if motivated by discriminatory purposes. Here, it is clear that the evidence fell far short of showing purposeful discrimination. The lower courts based their conclusion of unconstitutionality primarily on the fact that no black person had ever been elected to the City Commission, apparently because of the pervasiveness of racially polarized voting in Mobile. But past discrimination cannot condemn governmental action that is not itself unlawful. Thus, discriminatory intent has not been proven and the at-large system at issue here is constitutional.