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In 1989, Board of Estimate of City of New York v. Morris unanimously declared New York City’s Board of Estimate Unconstitutional, as it violated the “one man, one vote” principle derived form 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection standard.

The Board of Estimate made almost all municipal decisions, and was occupied by eight ex oficio members:

  • The Mayor of New York City
  • The New York City Comptroller
  • The President of the New York City Council
  • The Borough President of the Bronx
  • The Borough President of Brooklyn
  • The Borough President of Manhattan
  • The Borough President of Queens
  • The Borough President of Staten Island

The first three were elected in a city-wide election, and had 2 votes on the Board, while the Borough Presidents, elected by residents of their respective Borough’s, each held one vote on the Board.

The Supreme Court ruled the Board Unconstitutional because residents of Queens, the least populous Borough, had the same representation as the members of the most populous Borough, Brooklyn.

The problem, with this unanimous decision, is that this allegation simply isn’t true. As the three officers who held the most power (controlling 6 out of the 11 votes) were elected City-Wide. Therefore, the members of the more populous Borough, Brooklyn, would have more representation.

I don’t claim to smarter than the Supreme Court, so, what am I missing?

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The Board of Estimates still gave small boroughs like Staten Island more representatives per voter than large boroughs like Manhattan. Therefore it violated the one man, one vote principal which is evaluated with respect to all representatives having votes in a body, not just those that hold a majority.

The analysis is to take all at large seats that don't violate the one man, one vote rule off the table and look at the fairness of the allocation of the remaining seats.

This was an easy case, not a hard one, for the U.S. Supreme Court. The leading case are:

First, Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962) (holding that malapportionment claims under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment were not exempt from judicial review under Article IV, Section 4, as the equal protection issue in this case was separate from any political questions). As Wikipedia explains (links to selected full text opinions added):

The "one person, one vote" doctrine, which requires electoral districts to be apportioned according to population, thus making each district roughly equal in population, was further cemented in the cases that followed Baker v. Carr, including Gray v. Sanders, 372 U.S. 368 (1963) which concerned state county districts, Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964) which concerned state legislature districts, Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964) which concerned U.S. Congressional districts and Avery v. Midland County, 390 U.S. 474 (1968) which concerned local government districts, a decision which was upheld in Board of Estimate of City of New York v. Morris, 489 U.S. 688 (1989). Evenwel v. Abbott (2016) said states may use total population in drawing districts (as opposed to eligible voters).

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    @BrandonBradley the electoral college and senate are established by the constitution; they therefore cannot be unconstitutional. – phoog Mar 13 '18 at 2:31
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    @BrandonBradley "On the same idea, does this reasoning bar States from using any kind of non Proportional body i.e. one representative per county?" Yes. The original one man, one vote case involved a system like that. It does create a double standard. The 14th Amendment dictates equal representation but can't override other parts of the U.S. Constitution as phoog notes. – ohwilleke Mar 13 '18 at 2:35
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    @BrandonBradley Also worth noting that the 14th Amendment adopted in 1868 significantly limits state autonomy and was adopted after the original constitution which contains the electoral college and the U.S. Senate. Amendments are expected to deviate from the original. – ohwilleke Mar 13 '18 at 3:52
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    @DaleM Would it be germane? As I understand it, the legal question is clear: principles laid out in Ammendments don’t apply to what has already been ratified in the Constiituion. It seems this is more of a philosophical question, as to whether or not this should be how the system works. – Brandon Bradley Mar 13 '18 at 15:13
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    @BrandonBradley the questions you ask are not (just) for you - when these comments disappear so does the information – Dale M Mar 13 '18 at 20:21

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