Given the major events in the 2020 election cycle, one might be forgiven for missing an important development: the Supreme Court’s repeated invocation of Purcell v. Gonzalez. The number of opinions from this past election cycle referencing the case that, among other things, urges courts to think twice before ruling in election challenges in the leadup to voting was quite astounding. For election law scholars and practitioners alike, 2020 will also be remembered as the cycle during which Purcell all but cemented its place in the pantheon of U.S. election-law principles. The year of “pandemic primaries” and general presidential election might also be called the year of Purcell.
Scholars have criticized the Court following its 2006 Purcell ruling. Despite their astute observations, however, it is unclear whether anyone could have foreseen the full extent of Purcell’s potency—or envisioned the damage it was capable of causing. A sad, even if understandable, attempt to cope with the harsh realities of election administration has become unmoored from its purpose and origins. Simple guidance for judicial decisionmaking on the eve of elections has been thoughtlessly applied—and tragically over-exploited—such that it has become part of the problem. Nothing proves this better than Purcell in the pandemic.