US & World

International Students Dissect American Electoral Process

Perhaps the most astute observer of American politics is a 19th century French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville. His quest was to understand American democracy. He said, "I wanted to know it, if only to know what we ought to hope or fear from it." KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde speaks with a group of Fulbright scholars from around the world who have their own observations about 21st century American democracy.

Kitty Felde: They didn't come to America to cover the 2008 presidential campaign. None of them are political science professors. But they spent the weekend studying America's political parties and electoral college, and then shared their own observations about how America chooses its leaders.

Voter turnout was a hot topic. In the 2000 presidential election, less than half of American voters cast ballots. But that same year in Spain, 74% of voters showed up at the polls.

Maria Cruz Berrocal: Okay, one thing that I don't really get is the registration for voting.

Felde: Maria Cruz Berrocal is a post-doctoral student in archeology in Spain.

Cruz Berrocal: That's something completely misguided from the beginning. Because in Spain, you receive your papers, your documentation, as soon as you are 18. That's something automatic. You know, if it's going to be an election in two months, you'll receive all the documentation at home and they tell you you've got the right to vote, do it. It's not mandatory, but, okay, you've got the right. Exert that right!

Felde: There could be another reason for low voter turnout. Thomas Molg says voters are turned off by an election campaign that drags on for more than a year. Molg studies glaciers in Austria, where political campaigns are relatively short – only about six months.

Thomas Molg: The candidates here in the United States, they are just permanently online – or let's say they're just around all the time, you know? And I think it's very easy to make errors when you're exposed permanently to the public. I think that happens a bit less in Austria.

Felde: But Awni Khatib says it's not the mistakes, it's the candidates themselves. Khatib, a professor of chemistry at Hebron University in the West Bank, says the problem is that American voters don't have much of a choice.

Awni Khatib: I listen to debates; I have been here only in this country for like 10 days, but I have seen the debates on TV, I watch them; I don't see much difference. The big issues are measured almost with the same measuring stick.
Felde: And their answers seem very similar also?
Khatib: That's to me; maybe I'm wrong, but I feel the answers are very close. You know, not earth breaking differences.

Felde: There are some differences among the candidates this year that caught the attention of two Fulbright scholars. Masami Yuki is an environmental literature professor in Japan. Yuki says her image of the U.S. was that America was a diverse, open-minded place.

Masami Yuki: Oddly, it seems very conservative and it's the opposite image of the United States that I have, because the U.S. is always, like, a liberal country. The current election gives me an impression that a woman and a person of color, a big issue, shows how conservative this country is.

Felde: Race was also on the mind of Sindani Kiangu, a history professor at Kinshasa University in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kiangu, who is a visiting scholar at Stanford, says he was astonished to find a real racial division between mostly Anglo Palo Alto and its poorer neighbor, East Palo Alto, whose population is almost entirely black and Latino. Kiangu believes politics can be a means to bridge the divide.

Sindani Kiangu: If I learn America's history, it seem to me that when people from one community become president, it seem to be that this community is recognized in the nation. Having a black president of this country, seem to be, this is the real end of slavery.

Felde: Sindani Kiangu says America will truly come full circle in healing old wounds when a Native American is elected president.