Volume 94, Number 6

December 2019

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, Special Circumstances, and Evidence of Equality

Michael S. Taintor

Vote dilution doctrine under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act directs courts to look to evidence of election results to determine if all voters have equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. However, not every election in which a minority-preferred candidate prevails is necessarily evidence of equality. Those elections that courts judge to be illusory evidence of equality are said to be characterized by “special circumstances.” When a court recognizes special circumstances surrounding an election, it discounts the evidentiary value of that election, typically to the benefit of vote dilution plaintiffs. To date, no judicial opinion or scholarly work has proposed a comprehensive framework to explain the circumstances courts already recognize or point out the circumstances they ought to recognize. Drawing on the seminal Supreme Court precedent of Thornburg v. Gingles, the Voting Rights Act itself, and over thirty years of lower-court practice, this Note proposes a test. If the circumstances of an election are such that a victory for a minority-preferred candidate belie an ongoing, structural burden on the right to vote, that election is characterized by special circumstances. This Note uses a familiar tripartite framework of the “rights to vote” as an analytical lens for drawing lessons from past decisions and suggesting where the doctrine should go in the future. By recognizing the wider universe of burdens on voting rights, including those typically beyond the reach of judicial remedies, special circumstances doctrine can ensure vote dilution remedies are available where they are needed.