The Texas Democratic Party has moved to take its massive June convention to the virtual realm, giving party officials a chance to put a significant mark on the way conventions are conducted in the future. The change comes as the coronavirus pandemic upended the political world, ending traditional campaign rallies, causing primaries to be conducted entirely by mail, and even putting the fate of the national convention into question.
"We pride ourselves for having the largest convention in the country," said Texas Democratic Party deputy executive director Cliff Walker. "It's the biggest gathering of Democrats outside of the DNC (Democratic National Convention). But now that we're having to make some adjustments, I think it really does give us some opportunities."
As the coronavirus spread nationally in March, party leaders realized they may not be able to hold their customary convention, with thousands of Texas packed into a San Antonio convention center in early June, and they started looking at ways to reinvent the event for 2020 and beyond. The party announced the decision to transform its in-person convention into a virtual one in March, but is sharing details of how it will execute the plan for the first time.
"We firmly believe that this is the future of what conventions can look like," said Texas Democratic Party Convention director Hannah Roe Beck. "There's a big opportunity for innovation here. I think that a lot of the things that you'll see us doing this year are things that we're going to want to carry over."
The party plans to hold its virtual convention during the first week of June using two channels: One for official party business like voting on delegates and one with speakers, performances, and panels. The party is still in talks with the production company and the speakers about where the locations for the broadcast events, but the idea is to build a TV studio and control room to deliver the feed.
According to convention organizers, the "main stage" channel with speakers and panels will be broadcast on social media platforms such as Facebook. The party business will be conducted on a video chat platform like Zoom that will feature a grid of video boxes and allow participants to interact and ask questions.
The state party's executive director Manny Garcia hopes holding the convention online will allow more people to participate and engage in the state's politics.
"It's important for us to take this opportunity with the convention and say, hey, for some folks that maybe had never been able to participate before, that couldn't take the time to come to a city and pay for a hotel and pay for the travel and and do all of that, they can still experience the convention," Garcia said.
The traditional in-person convention usually draws 10,000 to 15,000 people, according to the state party's brand director Brittany Switzer, who worked on the 2016 and 2018 state conventions. She expects "more folks than ever" will tune into the convention this year.
Generally, conventions are the arena where the party introduces its platform and candidates, kicking off the general election campaign. Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa likened the traditional convention to a pep rally ahead of a Friday night football game where "you would pump up the team," which is harder to do when the convention is online.
"We're not going to have that in the sense that, you know, that the crowd's going to be out there cheering on the team," Hinojosa said, "But that's the best we can do under the circumstances."
One of the main functions of the state convention is to elect the 228 pledged national delegates who will represent Texas at the DNC convention. For voting on delegates and other party business, the state party has built out a system using Google Forms to insert preferences.
Voting will be divided up across multiple days, instead of the traditional one to two days of voting, so that users with varying technological equipment and expertise have the time to participate. Party officials said there will be testing and extensive training on the process ahead of the convention.
The DNC has been hyperfocused on security since the DNC's emails were hacked during the 2016 national convention. Garcia said voting will be secure with because of measures like two-factor authentication and publicly recorded votes.
"There are no secret ballots," Garcia said. "We will have tabulations of voting public up on our website. And so folks have an opportunity to review everything."
The Democratic National Committee has already Associated Press.
The presumptive nominee, Joe Biden, said in early April that Democrats might need to have a virtual convention. On Monday, Biden told WTMJ in Milwaukee that he's not sure if Democrats can hold a large in-person gathering.
"I honest to God don't know," Biden said. "It depends on what the science tells us. If we open up too quickly now, that will unlikely occur."
If the Texas Democrats are successful, it could provide the DNC with a blueprint for changes to the convention in Milwaukee. Even as Texas Democrats though the Texans are turning the second- largest Democratic convention into a virtual event, Garcia acknowledged that the scope of a national convention is much larger.
"We're certainly happy to tell every state party in the country...and the DNC as well, what we are doing and how we're how we're getting it done," Garcia said. "But, I know the challenge for the national convention is much larger than ours."
As Texas Democrats navigate the uncharted territory of pulling off a massive virtual political convention, Walker said his biggest concern is that the party has never done something like this. But, he notes there are also major challenges for in-person conventions and he believes things could operate smoothly with proper preparation.
"I think that what keeps me alert is the potential for surprises," Walker said. "I think with careful planning and some test runs, I'm not terribly worried. I'm actually very confident that it's going to be great."
Democrats are still haunted by disarray in the reporting of the Iowa caucus results, with Hinojosa calling technology problems his "biggest fear."
"I know that that was something that they really tried hard to avoid," Hinojosa said. "But, you know, as hard as they tried, it happened and that's my biggest fear. We don't want something like that to occur."
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