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How the DNC roll call vote managed to avoid disaster

Democratic National Convention: Day Two
The New York delegation was very excited about nominating Hillary Clinton.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA — It felt like the ending of a story rife with dramatic suspense, even though everyone here knew it wasn’t.

Hillary Clinton became the Democratic Party’s nominee for president Tuesday afternoon after the majority of the party’s delegates backed her over Bernie Sanders.

Since that was never in doubt, you’d think there wasn’t much excitement or suspense inside the Democratic National Convention. But as the DNC held a roll call vote in which the state delegations announced which candidate they were supporting, each side erupted with competing, extended bursts of applause — as if the fate of the nomination really did hang in the balance.

It didn’t, of course, and appropriately it was Sanders himself who called for the entire Democratic delegation — including all of his delegates — to suspend the rules and throw their votes to Hillary Clinton, nominating her by acclamation.

What was the roll call vote?

The way that vote occurred had become the subject of a heated debate between the Clinton and Sanders delegates here, underscoring some of the underlying divisions between the two camps.

The parties technically nominate their presidential candidate through what’s called a "roll call" vote, in which the delegates declare their support for the nominated candidate.

However, in many previous conventions the losing candidate has preemptively ended this formal roll call by what’s called "acclimation." In doing so, the losing candidate essentially removes himself from the running and frees his delegates to instead support the winning candidate.

This is what Clinton did in her campaign against Barack Obama in 2008, but it’s not what happened today in Philadelphia. Instead, Sanders carried through with the formal roll call vote to its conclusion — a move many of his supporters wanted but Clinton’s allies worried would hurt party unity.

As part of the convention’s rules, each state’s delegation gets to speak about why it supports its preferred candidate during the roll call vote. That gave Sanders’s allies a prominent opportunity to make clear that they still supported him for president — even if they didn’t actually have the votes to change the result.

The roll call vote causes some shenanigans on the floor

Before the roll call vote began, there were signs of trouble ahead.

The convention chair announced that both Clinton and Sanders were officially eligible to receive the presidential nomination. As soon as that happened, dueling chants of "Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!" and "Hillary! Hillary! Hillary!" erupted across each side of the convention floor.

As delegates headed into the convention, Sanders allies in the staircases passed notes and discussed how to launch a "Bernie beats Trump!" chant when Clinton sealed the nomination.

Clinton’s allies had started telling their delegates on the floor to try to confiscate Sanders signs if they saw them. In response, a Sanders supporter set up inside, handing out sheets of blank paper and markers to the Sanders delegates.

"We just want our voices to be heard," said Eddie, the man handing out the covert signs. When Vox’s Matt Yglesias asked Eddie who "we" are in this context, Eddie responded, "You know, people — people power," and then left.

Why Sanders delegates were determined to hold a roll call vote

Bernie Sanders’s brother casts delegate votes for him during the Democrats Abroad roll call vote.

Why did Sanders delegates want to push forward with a roll call vote most knew they’d lose?

I spoke to several of them on Monday and Tuesday, and they said doing so was important as a symbolic demonstration of how many delegates Sanders had received in the primary — a way of recording for the history books how many votes he had received.

As delegates began casting their votes for Sanders, it was clearly an emotional moment for him. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he smiled as delegates cheered for him.

"I think it will show the real division in the Democratic Party," says Zack Pate, a Sanders delegate from North Carolina. "It will project to the nation that we're not happy about how the primary process occurred."

Kelsey Parton, 29, a Sanders delegate from North Dakota, argued that Sanders’s endorsement of Clinton did not mean he had conceded to her. It meant, she said, that Sanders still wanted to fight for the final roll call vote on the floor of the convention.

"People think of the endorsement as a concession and suspension of the campaign, but it merely means, ‘If this is the person who is the nominee, I will support them for president,’" Parton said.

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