The DNC Finally Showed the Real America

From D.C. to the Northern Mariana Islands, the convention’s roll call was a reminder of the strength and beauty of America’s diversity

Rep. Veronica Escobar announces the Texas delegates during the virtual convention on August 18, 2020. Photo: Handout/DNCC via Getty Images

If you had said that the Democratic National Convention’s roll call would make us smile for more than 30 minutes straight, our cynical selves would have laughed. But that’s exactly what happened on the second evening of the Democrats’ national, and online, gathering.

The roll call of the states has always been one of the quirkiest parts of the quadrennial event. In it, delegates from across the country officially cast their votes to nominate a presidential candidate. But this is an unconventional convention, as DNC Chair Tom Perez said, and it made for one of the most powerful moments of the evening. Freed from the constraints of the convention floor, the roll call served as an opportunity to show the strength and beauty of America’s diversity.

The internet allowed for delegates to be broadcast casting their votes from their states and the District of Columbia in the continental U.S., and territories in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. The sites were poignant: We saw the inside of delegates’ homes. Deserts filled with cacti. Colorful community hubs. A mural of the late civil rights icon John Lewis. Beaches and cornfields and cows. The headquarters of the women’s suffrage movement. Joe Biden’s childhood home in Scranton, Pennsylvania — and the Delaware train station where he took the Amtrak throughout most of his 50 years in government.

Most Democrats view the 2020 election as the most important election of their lifetimes, and there was something immensely powerful about each delegate stating what matters to their state delegation from the places they call home. Each person described the issues they’ll keep at the top of their minds as they cast their ballots in the fall: the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, racial discrimination, immigration, climate change, fair wages, gun violence, and many more. And each one of them believes the nominee is the person who will fight for them from the White House. “Our next president Joe Biden,” became a rallying cry from all the corners of the Greater United States.

The multiracial and multiethnic coalition we witnessed also underscored what Real America looks like. Maine, a state that’s nearly 95% white, chose a Black LGBTQ+ delegate, state Rep. Craig Hickman. Four Native leaders — fisherman Chuck Degnan, state Rep. Derrick Lente, advocate Cesar Alvarez, and activist Kellen Returns From Scout — cast their votes on behalf of Alaska, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota respectively, a strong reminder of the First Nations that existed before the U.S. did. In Puerto Rico, state Sen. Carmelo Rios Santiago gave his speech and voted in Spanish. In Maryland, delegates Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott and college student Bianca Shah started by saying, “Black Lives Matter.” Immigrants and refugees represented Colorado, Hawaii, New York, and Washington. They are all part of the fabric of the country.

Roll call is one of the few opportunities in which the long-forgotten U.S. territories — American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — are allowed onto the national stage. The delegates from the Northern Mariana Islands had a poignant reminder: Residents of these islands remain second-class. “We don’t get to vote for president,” said local Democratic Party chair Nola Kileleman Hix. “So please don’t waste yours.”

The segment also reminded viewers of those who have been lost due to systemic issues that remain to this day. Rep. Veronica Escobar cast her vote from El Paso, Texas, where a year ago a white supremacist carried out the worst attack against Latinos in recent U.S. history. Khizr Khan, father of the late U.S. Army Capt. Humayun S. M. Khan, did the same from Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist riot ended with the murder of Heather Heyer. Judy and Dennis Shepard — parents of Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered in 1998 because he was gay — cast the delegate vote on behalf of Wyoming. Fred Guttenberg, father of Parkland victim Jaime Guttenberg, represented the state of Florida.

Roll call hit all the emotional notes, while also providing an escapist balm for those of us who’ve remained inside our homes over the past five months due to the pandemic. Those beaches, deserts, community hubs, and cornfields? They all look like places we’d like to visit when this is all over.

If we’re honest, this year’s Democratic National Convention has had plenty of hits (the speeches of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama) and misses (the overrepresentation of Never Trumpers) so far. But the DNC roll call, in all its earnest glory, will remain one of the most memorable moments of this strange election year.

Award-winning journalist covering politics, gender, race, activism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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