Purcell in Pandemic
Wilfred U. Codrington III
The 2020 election season placed remarkable pressure on the U.S. election system. As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged a politically polarized nation, American voters challenged a range of election regulations, looking to the courts for relief from laws that made voting particularly onerous during extraordinary circumstances. An examination of election law jurisprudence over this period reveals, among other things, the judiciary’s repeated reliance on a single case: Purcell v. Gonzalez. While its holding is less than clear, the decision in Purcell, at its core, governs the appropriateness of judicial intervention in election disputes on the eve of a political contest. The Court could have elucidated Purcell’s true meaning during this unique election cycle but, instead, it seems to have made matters worse. This Article argues that the Supreme Court’s repeated invocation of Purcell during the 2020 election cycle introduced an empty vessel for unprincipled decisionmaking and inconsistent rulings that only served to aggrandize election-related concerns, ultimately harming the nation’s most vulnerable voters. Part I describes the facts in Purcell, and what one might contend is its central holding. Part II highlights the chief deficiencies of the case, revealing a fundamental incoherence in its reasoning that augments the potential for government actors—including courts—to exploit Purcell in the lead up to an election. Part III examines more closely the judiciary’s application of Purcell in the 2020 primaries and general election, revealing the dangers it poses to voting rights and the democratic process.