Racially Polarized Voting

106 Pages Posted: 4 Oct 2015 Last revised: 8 Sep 2016

See all articles by Christopher S. Elmendorf

Christopher S. Elmendorf

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Kevin M. Quinn

Emory University School of Law

Marisa Abrajano

University of California, San Diego - Department of Political Science

Date Written: October 2, 2015


Whether voting is racially polarized has for the last generation been the linchpin question in vote dilution cases under the core, nationally applicable provision of the Voting Rights Act. The polarization test is supposed to be clear-cut (“manageable”), diagnostic of liability, and free of strong racial assumptions. Using evidence from a random sample of vote dilution cases, we argue that these objectives have not been realized in practice, and, further, that they cannot be realized under current conditions. The roots of the problem are twofold: (1) the widely shared belief that polarization determinations should be grounded on votes cast in actual elections, and (2) normative disagreement, often covert, about the meaning of racial vote dilution. We argue that the principal normative theories of vote dilution have conflicting implications for the racial polarization test. We also show that votes are only contingently related to the political preferences that the polarization inquiry is supposed to reveal, and, further, that the estimation of candidates’ vote shares by racial group from ballots cast in actual elections depends on racial homogeneity assumptions similar to those the Supreme Court has disavowed. Our analysis casts serious doubt on the notion — promoted in dicta by the Supreme Court and supported by prominent commentators — that courts should establish bright-line, vote-share cutoffs for “legally significant” racial polarization. The courts would do better to screen vote dilution claims using evidence of preference polarization derived from surveys, or non-preference evidence of minority political incorporation.

Keywords: vote dilution, racial polarization, racially polarized voting, race, voting rights, vote, voting, Section 2, Voting Rights Act, ecological inference, empirical

Suggested Citation

Elmendorf, Christopher S. and Quinn, Kevin M. and Abrajano, Marisa, Racially Polarized Voting (October 2, 2015). University of Chicago Law Review, 2016, Forthcoming, UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 461, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2668889

Christopher S. Elmendorf (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States
530-752-5756 (Phone)
530-753-5311 (Fax)

Kevin M. Quinn

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

Marisa Abrajano

University of California, San Diego - Department of Political Science ( email )

9500 Gilman Drive
Code 0521
La Jolla, CA 92093-0521
United States

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