Exchanges are about promoting international understanding. In order to understand the United States, it is essential to learn about our system of government. Elections are a great opportunity to see our democratic process in action. Thanks to the American tax payer, thousands of visitors have been able to observe the spectacle through the U.S. Department of State International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).
Elections affect everything
“Every program topic relates to elections,” says Associate Program Officer, Elizabeth Ganshert, simply because of the impact of our representatives’ decisions on daily life. Already, every IVLP participant receives a briefing on American federalism at the beginning of their program. Those in town for the elections get to experience the system first hand.
“International exchange participants are fascinated with our elections, regardless of their project topic,” says Senior Program Officer Frank Justice. “If I have a group in the United States on Election Day, I make sure they have a chance to visit a polling place or have some opportunity to observe democracy in action.” This even included a project from China in 2012 that focused on our financial system. Despite the seemingly random nature of the meeting, visiting a St. Louis polling place on Election Day was a highlight of the program.
Viewing parties, celebrations, and celebrity run-ins
Elections are particularly memorable when visitors get to meet the winning candidate. On Election Day in 1992, a Portuguese journalist was in Little Rock, Arkansas. Democratic Candidate Bill Clinton was also in Little Rock, his hometown, where he gave his acceptance speech to be President of the United States. “Not only did the visitor attend the rally for Clinton, but he was brought to an after-rally party by the local programmer, where he met and talked to President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Second Lady Tipper Gore,” recalls Senior Program Officer, Joanne Clark.
Even if visitors are unable to meet the candidates, they often have the opportunity to attend viewing parties. In 2012, Meridian hosted a Presidential Election Viewing Party, inviting visitors and friends to watch the results roll in.
Making elections accessible for all
Elections are a chance to show how government makes voting accessible to those with disabilities. Justice remembers one group that discussed local elections with the Executive Director of the DC Board of Elections and Ethics. Participants then crossed the Potomac River to visit to two separate polling places in Alexandria, Virginia. A blind visitor from Ethiopia had an opportunity to learn about and test the voting equipment for the visually impaired. The visitor said this experience “demonstrated inclusiveness and equal accommodation for all in the United States.”
Before the Vote: Debates and primaries
Before Election Day, visitors have had the opportunity to view various debates, either in person or at debate viewing parties. In 2012, we hosted over 100 international visitors to view the foreign policy presidential debate between Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.
— Exchange Programs (@ECAatState) October 23, 2012
Visitors also frequently observe primary elections. One group visited San Antonio, Texas to discuss voter registration, ballot access, voting procedures and other aspects of the local election process. Afterwards, the group had a chance to review sample voting machines. “This session was among the best on the project,” said Justice. “Multiple participants found the way in which technology is applied to the voting machines to be eye opening, while the Sri Lankan visitor was delighted by the concept of voting by mail for the elderly.” On Election Day, the delegation was divided into small groups and assigned to local volunteers who took them to multiple polling places and later to candidate victory and defeat parties.
Observing elections and exchanging ideas
Stories from visitors exchanging ideas and comparing processes on Election Day are endless. Justice remembers a Bangladeshi visitor exclaiming, “I now have a real image of what a free and fair election looks like.” Program Officer Renee Worthington saw Iraqi election stakeholders talk to volunteers and observe a hand count of votes. Vice President Henry Collins once took Australian visitors to a polling place in Reston, Virginia, where they were shocked at the low voter turnout.
Turnout for midterms is lower for both voters and international visitors. For the 2008 Presidential Election, Meridian arranged a project called iVOTE that brought 100 Election Fellows from 73 countries to observe elections. While this year is fewer, we still have visitors observing elections in Sacramento, California, Manchester, New Hampshire, Raleigh, North Carolina, Louisville, Kentucky, and Washington, DC.
Check back next week for a blog compiling international visitor impressions of Election Day 2014, from both IVLP and GlobalConnect projects.