Super Tuesday is the biggest event on the American primary-election calendar. Fourteen states, American Samoa, and Democrats abroad will cast ballots or caucus to help determine this year’s party nominee. What looked like an impending day of triumph for Bernie Sanders was blunted when Joe Biden dominated the South Carolina primary on Saturday. The win drove a stunning consolidation of support behind the former vice-president. Three of the seven remaining candidates dropped out of the race, and two of them — Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar — endorsed Biden, later to be joined by former 2020 candidate and onetime Texas representative Beto O’Rourke. The last in particular could be determinative. O’Rourke’s strong showing in Texas’s 2018 U.S. Senate race made him hugely popular in the state, where 228 delegates are up for grabs — second only to California’s 415 among Super Tuesday contests — and polling shows Biden and Sanders neck and neck. Even minor shifts in either’s fortunes could sway the outcome. Texas’s status as a general-election swing contest could hinge, too, on nominating the candidate who performs best there during the primary.
But as elsewhere, the majority of voting-age Texans will likely sit out the race. Turnout in the state’s last two elections has hovered between 52 and 46 percent — which is low, even by American standards. A new report from the Guardian offers a compelling potential explanation. Citing data from the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil-rights group, reporters found that 750 polling sites had been shuttered statewide since 2012, the most of any southern state. Research from the University of Houston confirmed that this has had a disproportionate impact upon nonwhite populations. From the Guardian:
The analysis finds that the 50 counties that gained the most Black and Latinx residents between 2012 and 2018 closed 542 polling sites, compared to just 34 closures in the 50 counties that have gained the fewest black and Latinx residents. This is despite the fact that the population in the former group of counties has risen by 2.5 million people, whereas in the latter category the total population has fallen by over 13,000.
Observers of how disputes over ballot access have played out this past decade will notice echoes of a national pattern. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The major accomplishment of Shelby County v. Holder was to eliminate the “preclearance” requirement — the legal mandate that some states and jurisdictions with histories of racist voter suppression, including Texas, must get federal approval before changing their election laws. This shift gave Republicans carte blanche to reshape the electorate to their liking. Measures that disadvantaged nonwhite voters and, by extension, Democratic candidates became the norm. Discriminatory voter-ID laws — which, for example, permit handgun licensees but not student-ID holders to vote in Texas, a state where 80 percent of the former are white and more than half of the latter are not — supplement aggressive and possibly illegal voter-roll purges. According to the Guardian, the consolidation of Texas’s polling cites into so-called voting centers — which, in theory, centralize ballot access so people can vote close to their jobs and avoid invalidating their votes by visiting the wrong location — is convenient for some and has bipartisan champions. But it also lets jurisdictions reduce the number of polling sites by half, a convenient bulwark against the state’s growing nonwhite population.
Precedent suggests the possible broader effect of these closures. In Georgia, Republican former secretary of state Brian Kemp included similar precinct shutdowns and poll-site relocations in his storied voter-suppression playbook. Along with purges and proof of-citizenship requirements, these measures were among several whose aim was rarely in doubt: The continuation of Republican rule by making it harder for black people, Latinos, poor people, and students to vote. Their desired outcome is now Georgia’s reality; Kemp is the state’s governor. Research since then suggests that these closures and relocations required voters to travel further to cast their ballots — an at-times insurmountable barrier in communities marred by inflexible work schedules and unreliable access to transportation. The estimated result was more than 50,000 votes thwarted and possibly more than 80,000. Kemp accomplished this with glee: A recent congressional investigation unearthed messages between the then-gubernatorial candidate and his staff applauding the havoc he’d wreaked on ballot access in Georgia.
Texas’s closures aren’t all attributable to a single factor or policy. Some may indeed have been good-faith efforts to streamline voting in response to difficulties that some voters were having. A conclusive ruling will require further analysis. But the racial asymmetry of their impact — and the clarity of intent behind related efforts that unfolded at the same time, both locally and in other states — suggest a dramatic movement toward suppression. The pattern is further reflected in Texas’s turnout rates. In terms of Super Tuesday, the result is something of a paradox: The day’s second-largest delegate haul being dictated by one of its lowest voting-age-population shares. And it’s a share comprised primarily of demographic groups that are crucial to Democrats’ electoral successes. Whatever Tuesday’s outcome in Texas, a winnowed franchise will only exacerbate the challenges the party will face there come November.