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Obama By A Coin Flip

At 6 P.M. on Tuesday night, Crystal Viagran is standing on a street corner in East Austin, Texas, holding an Obama sign above her head. In less than an hour, she ditches the sign and walks toward Govalle Elementary School, the primary voting and caucus site for Precinct 426, and picks up a manila packet containing all the instructions for conducting that night’s precinct convention. Crystal, 32, who works as a student adviser at the University of Texas, her alma mater, was elected precinct convention chair in 2006 by a total of three votes. That’s how many people showed up to caucus. “Back in 2004, the year I moved to this neighborhood, nine people showed up,” says Crystal, practically apologizing. “We don’t tend to get much turnout here.”

At 6:45, fifteen minutes before the caucus’s scheduled start time, well over 200 people are lined up outside. They will help choose 27 delegates to the county convention on March 29. The large number of elderly Hispanics in her precinct made Crystal think that Clinton would probably eke out a narrow victory, but she also had a sense that Obama had peeled off some soft Clinton supporters--enough to make it close.

As the the line grows longer and the temperature drops, the elderly and handicapped are allowed to wait inside. They sit at long lunch tables shoved to the back of the cafeteria, swapping names of people they know in common, and, like school kids gathered for an unexpected assembly, periodically asking one another what, exactly, they’re gathered here to do. For all but a few of the 50 people waiting--many of whom fondly recalled voting for JFK in 1960--this is their first ever caucus.

Before she lets anyone else in, Crystal urgently needs fifty more copies of the sign-in sheets; only six of these forms, labeled “Exhibit A,” were included in the packet. Finally, by 8:20, there are a surplus of sign-in sheets, and two school desks--one for Obama, the other for Clinton--are set up in the cafeteria. That’s when the 256 caucusgoers stream in.

Several precinct captains for both candidates usher Clinton supporters to one side, Obama’s to the other. As expected, Hispanics tend toward the former, African Americans and young Anglos who’d been priced out of their previous neighborhoods toward the latter--but, to my racially-profiling eyes, there’s still plenty of crossover.

For many longtime residents of this barrio east of I-35--what Ryan Duran, Obama’s Director of Hispanic outreach for Travis County and an East Austin native, half-ironically described to me as “the proverbial other side of the tracks”--this was the first time in their adult lives that they felt they’d been really noticed (a phrase that came up again and again) and encouraged to take part in a precinct convention. They responded by showing up in droves.

As the two groups grew in number, so did the volume of their claps and cheers. A tall, gray-bearded black man, who’d earlier introduced himself to me as Mr. Thompson, jogs back and forth in front of his troops like William Wallace on horseback, holding a handwritten Obama sign aloft, eliciting waves of whoops and raised arms. Virgil Limon, a proud member of the famous Limon family--at 2,400 and counting, the largest clan in Austin--steps into the narrowing gulf between the two camps bearing a Hillary sign, and playfully jousts with Mr. Thompson before running back to do his own Braveheart bit.

Crystal stands in the center of the room and calls the meeting to order. As the precinct chair for 426, she is the de facto keeper of the packet, and, for the time being at least, in charge of the meeting. Crystal thanks everyone for coming, guffaws at the number of people who’d shown up, and instructs them to form two lines--one for Clinton, the other for Obama--so they can sign in for the candidate of their choice.

It’s hard to tell which line is bigger, though most people conclude that Clinton has Obama beat. After all, her line stretches to the back of the room and snakes along the wall, whereas the Obama line is shorter, clumpier. James Brown, a white graduate assistant in the Department of Rhetoric at UT--and the person whom Crystal had appointed as temporary precinct convention secretary--runs the Obama desk. James asked Lonnie Limon, the son of Virgil Limon, if he would man the Clinton desk, and Lonnie happily accepts.

Once all the caucus signatures for president have been collected, Crystal stands in the center of the room again, this time before a much smaller group of 50. The only ones who have stayed are the ones who wish to stand for one of the 27 delegate slots apportioned to Precinct 426, as well as those who wish to vote on who would fill those slots. They also have to elect a precinct chair.

“Who would you like to nominate for this position?” Crystal asks. “You’re allowed to nominate anyone you wa --”

“You!” several people shout.

“Lonnie,” yells Virgil, pointing at his son.

“Anyone else?” Crystal asks.

“I nominate Jeff,” says Stuart, a sociology professor at faraway Texas A&M. That one takes Jeff by surprise.

“Then I nominate Stuart,” says Jeff, Stuart’s boyfriend.

The first three nominees give 30-second speeches making the case for why they would make good convention chairs, but also saying that the other nominees would be equally good.

Then Stuart stands up.

“Hi, my name is Stuart Hysom. I have to admit, I’m new to the process … “

“We’re all new!” someone shouts encouragingly.

“Well, uh, I’m a professor at Texas A&M, so please don’t yell at me.” Friendly boos and laughter from the Longhorn crowd. “I just want to say that I’ll be happy to serve.”

Lonnie beats Crystal 24-16, buoyed by his base of Hispanic, longtime East Side residents. Stuart does steal one vote from that contingent, though, a man in his 60s, who, after realizing that fifty pairs of eyes were trying to ascertain his reasons for voting for Stuart, stands up and says, “I vote for the Aggie because he has courage!” Jeff also got one vote--from Stuart.

At around 9:15, while James and Lonnie, with help from Crystal, tally the signatures, word comes in that Clinton has won Ohio. The news spreads quickly, eliciting a few pumped fists and frowns, but Ohio couldn’t matter less to the residents of Precinct 426 when they learn that, after counting the rolls several times, Lonnie, James, and Crystal are now faced with the most improbable of scenarios: This precinct convention, which had drawn a record-shattering 256 caucus-goers, has ended in a tie. 128 to 128.

But maybe the issue is moot--maybe it isn’t a tie after all. Lonnie discovers that, on one of the Obama rolls, someone named Deborah McWilliams had filled in every piece of information required of her except for one: the name of the candidate she was supporting.

“We can’t count it,” Lonnie says. “She didn’t write ‘Obama.’ So it’ll be 128 to 127, and we’ll apportion 14 delegates to Clinton and 13 to Obama.”

“Wait, wait,” James says. “Her number’s on the sheet, right?”

“And the caucus is still in session,” Crystal adds.

“We can call her up--she can’t live too far away. We can have her come back.”

All eyes turn to Lonnie. He might be a Clinton supporter, but he isn’t Harold Ickes. “Ok, call her up.”

Deborah answers her phone and assures Crystal that she’ll be back at the school in ten minutes, and she is. But the issue of how to split the 27 delegates evenly remains. The extra delegate isn’t going to make much of a difference in the county convention--the person would be just one out of about 6,800 delegates there--but procedures are procedures.

As James and Lonnie look on, Crystal calls Garry Brown, Assistant Director of the Travis County Democratic Party. She returns with his verdict in less than a minute. “We have to flip a coin.”

Everybody talks at once. A few people feel cheated--by the fact that this whole experiment would end so randomly, that Deborah McWilliams was allowed to return. But most people don’t seem affronted so much as--well, tickled. It was funny.

Lonnie calls the precinct convention hotline, just to be sure. “Yup, we’ve got to flip a coin,” he confirms.

“A coin? Who flips it?” James asks.

“Let’s get one of the kids to do it,” Lonnie suggests. Several children, who’d remained remarkably well-behaved throughout the proceedings, are hovering around the desk. James takes a quarter from his pocket and walks over to a 12-year-old girl.

“Hi, what’s your name?”

“Catherine Arjet.”

James explains the situation as Catherine fingers a strand of hair. A group of about 15 people gather round Catherine. Cameras and cell phones emerge from their pockets. Of all the trivial photos they’d taken and deleted, this one would certainly be worth keeping.

Lonnie calls it in advance. Heads. If it comes out heads, Clinton gets the delegate. Tails goes to Obama. Catherine lays the coin on her index and middle fingers, then flips it up. It lands on its side, rolls a couple feet, lays flat. Everyone gathers round the coin. The nine-year-old’s face takes on a shy cast while James and Lonnie bend over the coin.

“It’s tails,” Lonnie announces. “Obama gets the 14th delegate.”

Correction (4/19/2016): This article originally stated that Catherine Arjet was nine years old. She was 12 years old.

Laurence Lowe is a researcher-reporter at GQ and a senior editor at Triple Canopy. His work has appeared in The New York Times and n+1.