Election campaign signs outside Huston–Tillotson University
Artillery Row

Super Tuesday in Texas

The day everything can change in the Democratic race to become the party’s nomination to take on Trump

Around the Super Tuesday election consoles set up in the middle of the Huston-Tillotson University union building, both students and voters from the local area were doing last-minute smart phone searches to help them decide between the myriad voting options.

“I’ve never voted before,” says 21-year-old sociology student Leonora Boone, sitting by the union café clutching a handful of campaign leaflets from people canvasing outside. “I’m trying to figure it all out, I’ve never heard of any of these people.” 

Twenty-nine-year-old tech worker Haley Muller retreats to a table on which she lays out a large two-sided yellow pamphlet that she scans as she consults her phone.

“I’m using an app from the Bernie Sanders campaign that lets you know which politicians align with the same politics,” Muller says. “There are more candidates and propositions than I expected.”

Super Tuesday is a big day in the race to select the Democratic candidate who will take on President Trump in the November general election that many are framing as a fight for the soul of America. 

Holly Kennedy and Renee Vaizburd wearing their “I Voted” stickers after casting their vote at Huston–Tillotson University’s polling station

It’s when 1,357 of all available pledged delegates are decided across 14 state primaries—including California, which has the highest number of delegates (415) and Texas, which has the third highest (228)—and the American Samoa and Democrats Abroad caucuses (yielding 19 pledged delegates between them).

Every state has a certain number of delegates—determined by all manner of factors—to proportionally allocate. It’s a contentious and complicated system. Suffice to say that whichever candidate achieves a simple majority of 1,991 out of the total 3,979 pledged delegates available by the time of the Democratic Party’s National Convention in July will become the party’s nomination to take on Trump.

Surrender Lockridge and Javon Rodriguez before voting

As if that wasn’t drama enough, numerous important local positions such as district and county attorneys and judges, as well as positions in Congress, are up for grabs too.

“I always try and vote when local positions are up, as they are the law makers and directly oversee me and the city we live in,” says 24-year-old computer science student Andiashia Hodge. 

She explains she’s not as interested in the presidential election, as the president has to “go through the other branches of government” and hence the job “is more of a public face.”

So for now, she is keeping an open mind toward November.

“I don’t get caught up in the whole Republicans versus Democrats thing,” she says. “As a black woman, if you are a politician, I just want to know how you are going to help urban areas and improve things. The president has helped with some stuff. I’m from California where there has been an increase in employment. He says inappropriate things, but it hasn’t directly affected me. I respect his honesty.”

Entrance to Huston–Tillotson University

Dating from 1875, Huston-Tillotson is a historically black university, part of a network of higher education institutions established before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the intention of primarily serving the African American community. 

The campus sits in Austin’s East Side, an area of the city which used to be predominantly black. Gentrification has forced many African Americans to move to the outskirts of the city or beyond. During the past few decades, the African American proportion of the city’s population has decreased from 15 percent to 7 percent, according to city estimates.

“Having the polling station here is an informal way for other people to learn about the university and its students,” says Steven Hatchett, 37, the university’s director of career services. “The city has a diversity challenge, and here is this great resource that can help pump diversity into the ether.”  

Outside the union entrance yoga teacher Jumanna Stark is volunteering with Common Cause for Texas, part of a nationwide organisation that assists voters who have trouble voting.

“If you have a problem or get turned away, I can get in touch with our command center that can check a data base,” Stark says. “Most of the people running these polling stations are nice and helpful, but you know how some people can be when they get a bit of power.”

Sign pointing the way to the polling station at the Austin Public Library George Washington Carver branch in East Austin

“Texas is probably the leading state for voter suppression,” Anthony Gutierrez, executive director for Common Cause for Texas, tells me over Stark’s phone (Americans, especially when in activist mode, are amazingly helpful and proactive). “The people in power don’t want any change in the power dynamic, and the demographic trends in Texas have got those people scared to death. So they are trying everything to stop that being reflected at voting stations, or by purging voter rolls.”

Also busy outside the union entrance are volunteers with the Democratic Socialists of America. They are canvassing for Bernie Sanders, the terror of the Democratic Party Establishment, who fear his left-wing reputation will put off too many voters in a general election runoff with Trump. 

“Your Labour Party is so much stronger than the Democrats, I love that party,” says 23-year-old Iynasio Martinez. “It was heart breaking when it lost in your election, but it was a call to mobilise in Texas, of all places. What cripples the US is its two-party system. At least you have others. Here the Left doesn’t have a voice, certainly not among Establishment Democrats.”

Sanders’ brand of populism and democratic socialism was in full force when he recently barnstormed across Texas, holding rallies in four cities during a weekend of campaigning. It increasingly looks like the nomination contest will come down to a choice between him or Joe Biden representing a moderate position.  

By 1.20 p.m., the counter on the primary polling console was showing 195 people had voted. Pretty slow going. Though the rush may well have been yet to come.

A voter at a console at the polling station inside the union building of Huston–Tillotson University

“You have until 7 p.m.!” a volunteer with the polling team calls out to an urgent inquiry from a student who then dashes off to a class. 

A few blocks north at another polling station inside a public library, voting momentum was building more visibly. Inside, the cue of people waiting to vote snaked along various corridors before spilling out into the main library. At the back of the queue two mothers with prams tried to settle their children for a long wait.

Jumanna Stark offering voting advice outside the polling station.

Both inside and outside the library there was a keener sense of the great force that is American democracy in all its bewildering and bickering glories.

Sitting near the library entrance is a woman in a red white and blue cowboy hat, canvassing for petitions to recall Austin’s mayor and force him to leave or undergo another election.

“I’ll sign that,” said a woman on her way out from the library. “He’s not controlling the sprawling development that is causing prices to rise. I’ve been living in this area since the ‘90s. It used to be a diverse community, but now there’s all these trust fund babies coming from New York and California. There’s no sense of community left.”

Also canvassing outside the library was 27-year-old Saurah Tabrizi, who fondly remembers a trip to London to visit a friend that led to her interning for a Liberal Democrat MEP during the Brexit process.

“Canvassing looks very different in the UK,” Tabrizi says. “For one, you can’t get paid whereas here everyone gets paid. It’s great that you don’t have as much money involved as we do, with Big Pharma, Big Oil and all the rest.”

As she continues to dissect the two country’s different electoral styles, she breaks off.

“Thank you for voting, have a great day,” she calls to someone heading toward the car park, in that typically enthusiastic and breezy American way that belies the huge tensions underpinning this election. At the weekend, I met with a Mexican American friend I hadn’t seen for a while who told me that he and his wife are leaving the country if Trump wins again.

By Wednesday morning in the US, Biden had taken 351 delegates to Sanders’ 280, with more than 600 delegates still to be called. Biden won Texas, while Sanders was predicted to take California. There’s still so much more to happen. The race has just begun. 

“It was nice to deal with someone else’s political sphere,” Tabrizi says of her time in London. 


All photos by James Jeffrey unless otherwise stated

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover