Sandy Watters remembers when she first heard of Bernie Sanders last year, and how quickly her excitement about his progressive platform turned into an eagerness to act.
"We started looking up how to be involved in your party and what to do in the primary. I came across how to become a delegate," said Watters, 21, of Willmar, Minnesota.
Watters went through a couple rounds of competition at the local and state levels, and in the end was elected to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention for her 7th Congressional District in south-central Minnesota.
U.S. & World
The next, and harder, step, she realized, was getting to Philadelphia for the weeklong convention in July.
For many across America who became hands-on political for the first time in this presidential election — energized by an anti-establishment candidate like Sanders — the cost of being a delegate isn’t an obstacle they foresaw.
"I’ve got a few fundraisers in my hometown," said 27-year-old diesel mechanic Dylan Parker, who will represent Illinois’ 17th Congressional District as a Sanders delegate. "Otherwise, it’s going to come out of me and my family’s pockets."
Roughly 4,800 delegates, representing every congressional district, state, and U.S. territory, will gather July 25-28 in Philadelphia to officially nominate the party’s candidate for president. Delegates are expected to arrive by July 24.
Combine a five-night hotel stay in an expensive East Coast city with airfare from places across the country, and many delegates have been told by their state Democratic Party officials that the trip will cost anywhere from $4,000 to $8,000.
"If I went the route the party has set aside for me, I’m looking at $4,000 to 5,000," Wisconsin delegate Matthew LaRonge said.
LaRonge, a Sanders delegate from the town of Plover, and Wisconsin’s other 85 Democratic delegates have been assigned a convenient — if pricey — hotel by the Democratic National Committee for convention week. Each state and territory was assigned hotels by the national party organization in December. Some states, like Wisconsin, are lucky — relatively speaking. LaRonge and his cohort were assigned the Homes2 Suites by Hilton in Center City, across from Reading Terminal Market.
The privilege of staying downtown will cost the 29-year-old Autozone salesman $369 a night.
"We are not required to stay at the Hilton. So if fundraising doesn’t work out, there are AirBnBs and other hotels a little further away," LaRonge said.
Others like Watters and her fellow Minnesotans will stay at the Radisson Hotel Valley Forge — 21 miles from Center City and 30 miles from the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia, where the convention will take place.
Watter, LaRonge, and more than 260 other delegates have taken to the crowdfunding website GoFundMe, asking for support from anyone willing to help send them to Philadelphia. Most of those spaeeking help through the site are Bernie Sanders supporters, and tend to be younger.
They come from far-flung places like Hana, Hawaii; Sioux County, South Dakota; and Nevada City, California.
One of the more successful, Jason Eno of Maui County, Hawaii, has raised more than $3,800. And that was just to help himself and other Hawaii delegates get to the state convention on the island of Oahu.
"In addition to our time (two days at the convention plus travel), we will be paying for airfare ($200), lodging in Honolulu (500), and the cost of the convention itself ($125). We need every Bernie delegate to be there to support our cause," Eno wrote at his GoFundMe page. "Unfortunately the cost of the trip may be more than some can afford. Please help us get there for Bernie, Hawaii, and the nation. Mahalo."
"You do only live once, and we are the future of American politics, or America in general," said Parker. "And we want to help out. You have to be willing to put your money where your mouth is."
Despite a perception among some delegates that their state political organizations are not allowed to finance delegates’ trips to convention, federal election law does not prohibit state political organizations like the Democratic Party of Illinois from paying.
But the financial strain of paying the way for Illinois’ 182 delegates is a constraint.
"I’m not aware of any legal prohibition," said Democratic Party of Illinois spokesman Steve Brown. "You can do the math. Hotel rooms are close to $760 a night with taxes. And with hotels limiting stays to four or more nights, plus airfare, it’s an expensive commitment."
Elected officials who are delegates can use candidate funds to pay for their trips.
The Federal Election Commission also alluded to sections of federal campaign finance laws that allow presidential candidates to help pay for delegates’ trips, so far as the delegates spend the contributions only on travel expenses.
"The candidate will want to make sure that the money is used to further the delegate’s participation in the convention and is not converted to personal use," according to the FEC.
Democratic National Convention officials "understand and appreciate the commitment" the delegates will make this summer to spend thousands on the trip to argue vehemently for Sanders or front-runner Hillary Clinton, a spokesman for the DNC said.
He added that crowdsourcing sites like GoFundMe potentially ease the burden on the delegate themselves.
"Our process encourages state parties to give delegates information and tools to help to put together the resources to participate," DNC spokesman Lee Whack said in an email. "Over the last three cycles, in particular, the Internet has lowered the bar for participation by making it easier for potential delegates to get their message out and to leverage tools for crowdfunding to help them perform this vital role."
In Colorado Springs, south of Denver, writer Jené Jackson followed that 21st century blueprint to a successful bid for delegate in Colorado’s 5th Congressional District.
She started by giving an emotional speech in support of Sanders to a group of Colorado Democrats, which she then posted to YouTube. Weeks later, she was told to start planning for Philadelphia.
"I was absolutely shocked," Jackson said. "What I realized is there are different ways of working for a candidate and your beliefs. One is making tons of phone calls and putting fliers out. Another, I realized is standing on a stage and giving a speech."
Jackson has raised $1,205 on GoFundMe, and is planning local fundraisers like her fellow first-time Democratic delegates.
"I sing too, so we’re planning some performances to help raise money," she said. "I’m buying my flight this week."