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On Democracy's Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought "One Person, One Vote" to the United States

J. Douglas Smith

Hill and Wang

On Democracy's Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought Download image

ISBN10: 0809074249
ISBN13: 9780809074242

Trade Paperback

384 Pages



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J. Douglas Smith's On Democracy's Doorstep masterfully recounts the tumultuous and often overlooked events that established the principle of "one person, one vote" in the United States.

Before the Warren Court acted, American democracy was in poor order. As citizens migrated to urban areas, legislative boundaries remained the same, giving rural lawmakers from sparsely populated districts disproportionate political power—a power they often used on behalf of influential business interests. Smith shows how activists ranging from city boosters in Tennessee to the League of Women Voters worked to end malapportionment, incurring the wrath of chambers of commerce and southern segregationists as they did so. Despite a conspiracy of legislative inaction and a 1946 Supreme Court decision that instructed the judiciary not to enter the "political thicket," advocates did not lose hope. As Smith shows, they skillfully used the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause to argue for radical judicial intervention. Smith vividly depicts the unfolding drama as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy pressed for change, Solicitor General Archibald Cox cautiously held back, young clerks pushed the justices toward ever-bolder reform, and the powerful Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen obsessively sought to reverse the judicial revolution that had upended state governments
from California to Virginia.

Today, following the Court's recent controversial decisions on voting rights and campaign finance, the battles described in On Democracy's Doorstep have increasing relevance. With erudition and verve, Smith illuminates this neglected episode of American political history and confronts its profound consequences.


Praise for On Democracy's Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought "One Person, One Vote" to the United States

"Smith is an accessible and knowledgeable storyteller . . . [He] provides a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at how the Supreme Court came to decide the cases that came to shape our political system . . . there is much to enjoy in On Democracy's Doorstep's detailed accounting of the creation of the principle of ‘one person, one vote.'"
Los Angeles Review of Books

"‘One person, one vote' lies at the heart of democracy. J. Douglas Smith tells the gripping story of how the U.S. Supreme Court boldly acted in the 1960s to bring that ideal closer to reality. And he unearths the first stirrings of backlash that augured today's polarized politics. A fascinating blend of political, legal, and social history."
—Michael Waldman, President, Brennan Center for Justice at NY U School of Law, and author of The Second Amendment: A Biography

"A topic as important and serious as voting deserves an important and serious book. This is it. J. Douglas Smith has done a masterful job of untangling the reapportionment thicket."
—Julian Bond, former chairman of the NAACP and Distinguished Adjunct Professor, American University

"Over the course of our country's history, our ability to live up to our founders' vision has been tested time and time again. J. Douglas Smith tells the story of the people who met one of the most critical of these tests. This is the story of citizens, elected leaders, activists, lawyers, and judges who, over time,
developed a deeper understanding of what true self-governance means. It's a story that reminds us that our key founding principle—that in a democracy, everybody counts—is worth fighting for. And that it must be protected with constant vigilance."
—Maggie Hassan, Governor of New Hampshire

"J. Douglas Smith's On Democracy's Doorstep is the definitive legal whodunit about the creation of the ‘one person, one vote' standard. Smith reminds us—now when it's vitally important to recall it—that the doctrine was neither obvious nor certain, and that a colorful, interconnected crew of country lawyers, litigation experts, journalists, and justices toiled for years to bring it into existence."
—Dahlia Lithwick, Supreme Court correspondent, Slate

"Today, the principle of ‘one person, one vote' is fundamental to democracy—but it wasn't always so. On Democracy's Doorstep tells how the Supreme Court decided to enter the political thicket and create the modern law of democracy, and how a proposed constitutional amendment almost reversed the Court. In today's era of partisan gerrymandering and the overturning of the Voting Rights Act, this book could not be more timely and relevant."
—Noah Feldman, Professor, Harvard Law School, and author of Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices

"On Democracy's Doorstep is a superb account of the Supreme Court's critical ‘one person, one vote' decision. It is thoroughly researched and beautifully written. Everyone who cares about American democracy will want to read this book."
—Gary May, Professor of History, University of Delaware, and author of Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy

"On Democracy's Doorstep is the compelling story of how a president and a Supreme Court rescued American democracy a half century ago—a vitally important book for our democracy's new age of crisis."
—John Fabian Witt, Professor, Yale Law School, and author of Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History

"A fascinating account of a crucial yet little-known chapter in American history, On Democracy's Doorstep is a meticulously reported, thoughtfully written inside story of the momentous legal doctrine that profoundly shaped American politics."
—Ari Berman, author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics

"[On Democracy's Doorstep] is invaluable for anyone who wishes to understand the court, especially those who aren't familiar with legal jargon . . . Smith gives us the knowledge that imparts the power to change and, more importantly, the hope that it can succeed."
—Kirkus (starred review)

"As historian Smith ably demonstrates, beginning in the late 19th century, malapportionment—the uneven representation of constituents by lawmakers—became the most serious threat to political equality . . . Smith takes a novel angle and writes with a light touch."
—Publishers Weekly
Praise for Managing White Supremacy

"An important contribution . . . Beautifully written, respectful of complexity, and compellingly presented." —John Kneebone, Library of Virginia

"An intricate book, subtly and effectively written, lucidly conceptualized, persuasively argued, and thoroughly researched."—North Carolina Historical Review

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


The problem of apportionment, like many episodes in the contested history of democracy in the United States, reflects one of the deepest and most long-standing political and cultural divides in American society—the...

About the author

J. Douglas Smith

J. Douglas Smith is the author of Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia, which received the 2003 Library of Virginia Literary Award in Nonfiction. He is the director of humanities at the Colburn Music Conservatory and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.

Alex Lebosq

J. Douglas Smith

Read J. Douglas Smith at Salon