In normal times, Illinois delegates would probably be packing their bags and hitting the road for Milwaukee to attend the Democratic National Convention that begins Monday.
But this year, most Illinois delegates won’t be heading north to Wisconsin after organizers made the decision to hold the entire convention remotely so as to not spread COVID-19 among the tens of thousands of delegates, elected officials and media that would normally be in attendance.
The decision has some first-time Illinois Democratic delegates feeling disappointed their convention experience won’t be in-person.
They’ll have to miss out on intense added security, virtually nonstop protests and crowded streets with tall fences on either side to control where people can walk.
And that’s not to mention the never-ending quest for Wi-Fi.
But this year, delegates like Maggie Wunderly from Aurora, will be watching from her couch.
“I have the impression that it’s really going to be just — we’re just watching it on the internet with everyone else,” she said.
Wunderly, who chaired the Naperville Township Democrats and supports Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, doesn’t take issue with the decision to hold a virtual convention to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
But she does feel that there are experiences that will be lost here — particularly the events that have to do with how the Democratic Party works and what should go into the party’s platform — a declaration of what the party fundamentally believes.
For Wunderly, that means seeing less emphasis on superdelegates, who tend to be the top politicians from states who get a vote in the party’s nominee. She’s also pushing for all states to adopt an open primary process, where a voter does not have to be formally affiliated with one party to pull a primary ballot.
“I kind of thought about things more and realized that if I don’t get involved, then I can’t really expect the Democratic Party to improve,” she said
But with a remote convention, delegates aren’t even sure if there will be room for any kind of debate about that platform within the party, which concerns Kennedy Bartley, another first-time Illinois delegate who supports Bernie Sanders.
The Pilsen resident wanted to go to Milwaukee to fight for the adoption of her values into the platform, like Medicare For All, the Green New Deal and addressing racial inequities.
“It’s a bit disappointing that the convention won’t be in person this year,” Bartley said. “I think [an] important aspect of democracy is dissent and protest and active and opposing conversations, and it’s unfortunate we won’t be able to do those things to influence the platform.”
“Going into it, I’m excited still to be as civically engaged as I’m privileged to be,” he said. “But I would just like to have the space to sharpen the disagreements that exist and come together in unity in defeating Donald Trump.”
Bartley acknowledges that’s going to be hard to do when everything is being done remotely.
“You sign up to be a delegate, and you expect to have this experience and be able to be, like, a civic agent for change and this and that,” she said. “And then you end up watching it from your couch.”
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Victor Shi campaigned to be a Joe Biden delegate after getting swept up in watching Hillary Clinton accept the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2016.
“And so in 2020 I had that kind of same expectation, of just me meeting delegates around the country, interacting with them, getting to know them, and all be a part of this moment that’s bigger than ourselves, really,” he said.
Shi will soon be a freshman at UCLA, studying Political Science and American Literature. He said he’ll still look forward to breakout Zoom meetings for young delegates and for Asian Americans next week, but he was really looking forward to seeing the celebrities at the convention in person.
And not celebrities like Katy Perry or Scarlett Johansson that have rallied the crowds in the past, but celebrities like Biden and Barack Obama.
Instead, Shi will be watching and casting his delegate vote from exactly the same place he was in 2016 — his Buffalo Grove couch.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.