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Tuesday’s DNC roll call was a quirky, unexpected delight

Delaware’s pass, Rhode Island’s calamari, and other highlights from this year’s virtual DNC roll call.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

From delivering votes from the outer reaches of the United States’ islands in the South Pacific to featuring an urge for everyone to support Rhode Island’s “Calamari Comeback,” the roll call of Tuesday night’s Democratic National Convention programming provided an unusual opportunity for the party: a chance to visually represent the diversity of the nation, including its territories, in a way many Americans rarely get to see.

In some ways, the DNC has been hamstrung by the limitations of having to run an entire four-day political convention over Zoom. The first evening’s speaker lineup, all presenting virtually to empty rooms, came off like “a strained telethon” in the words of the New York Times’s Giovanni Russonello.

Tuesday night’s roll call — the moment when each state traditionally puts forward its choice for the presidential nominee — did feature some of the usual procedural traditions. For example, many viewers were confused about why Delaware’s delegates, Gov. John Carney and Sen. Tom Carper, chose to “pass” rather than signal their nomination.

But that was actually just a tradition in which the nominee’s home state often goes last in the roll call. Because Delaware is Joe Biden’s home state, the state opted to “pass” its turn (states vote in the roll call alphabetically) so that its delegates could then reappear at the end of the proceedings. That move allows the delegates to cast the deciding nominating votes for the state’s favorite son or daughter.

Though that moment may have been strange to new viewers, it was actually one of the only moments of the roll call that felt familiar. Because this year’s convention was virtual, the segments — some pretaped and some live — allowed many delegates to showcase a bit of their home states and territories, in all their quirks and charms.

So for almost certainly the first time in the nation’s history, one delegate cast 33 votes for Biden while wearing a snow leopard mask (Nebraska), while another delegate from Rhode Island presented an impassioned plea for Covid-19 economic recovery while standing next to a plate of fried calamari. Representatives from the Northern Mariana Islands, adorned with flower crowns, reminded the rest of America’s residents that while they get to nominate political candidates, they don’t get to vote in the election. Representatives in Las Vegas ... were probably doing whatever you’d expect representatives in Las Vegas to be doing.

Figures in a chef’s uniform, a firefighting suit, medical scrubs, a construction worker’s vest, and a waiter’s uniform (complete with a tray of drinks) stand behind Nevada’s delegate. All of them stand in front of the famous diamond shaped neon sign reading, “WELCOME to Fabulous LAS VEGAS Nevada.”
Covid-19 was a big topic of the roll call, as Nevada’s pandemic cosplay illustrates.
Democratic National Convention

The roll call presenters, some awkward or shy on camera, some eager to present their messages in a short time frame, decidedly alleviated the monotony of the typical convention procedures, which usually play out with grand ceremony and sobriety. Viewers tuning in to the convention from their homes seemed to be delighted by the mix of quirky homespun flavor and national diversity that the roll call brought to the proceedings — as well as the opportunity to see beautiful, unique parts of the country at a time when travel beyond everyone’s immediate area is limited.

But there was also plenty of somber messaging in the mix as well. As my colleague Anna North noted, “the format allowed states and territories to show all Americans their history, like Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell’s speech from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, or the Oklahoma delegation’s capsule history of the Tulsa race massacre.”

And plenty of the nominating representatives made note of the urgency of acting on issues like climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic. “They call us essential workers but treat us like we are disposable,” said Geraldine Waller, a meatpacking worker from Nebraska and wearer of the aforementioned leopard mask. “We are human beings, not robots, not disposable.”

The format of Tuesday night’s roll call arguably drove home Waller’s message, and emphasized the humanity of the many people for whom this year’s election is an urgent, existential issue. It was a far more authentic stage than political conventions usually allow for — but perhaps the one we needed the most.

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