By Dion Wierts, Cultural Affairs Assistant at the United States Mission to the European Union
What better time for a group of Members of the European Parliament and the EU40 network to travel to the U.S. then when the primary debates are all over the media. In fact, the first three states that hold their primaries generally get as much media attention as all the other states together. By July, both political camps will have identified their respective candidate who will run for President on November 8. During the past couple months, there has been a significant ramp up of political campaigning, presidential candidate debates, media coverage, and voter registration drives.
On Saturday February 6, I joined MEPs Victor Negrescu (S&D, Romania), Claudia Monteiro de Aguiar (EPP, Portugal), Pablo Zalba Bidegain (EPP, Spain), and Camelia Vasile of the EU40 network on a one-week fact finding mission to the United States to study the country’s electoral system. The program allowed participants to assess first-hand the various methods used by the campaigns, grassroots activists, and others to actively engage U.S. citizens in the electoral process, increase their understanding of the American political system, and strengthen and establish relations between their European and American counterparts.
The State Department frequently arranges these types of programs on U.S. policy, society, or culture in order to introduce policy makers and civil society actors to diverse aspects of the United States so that they can relate these perspectives to their peers and constituencies. Having been tasked with organizing the visit during the previous months, I could not wait to see how it all played out.
The tour’s two main locations were selected to optimally immerse the participants in the U.S. electoral system. We spent the first four days in the nation’s capital and political epicenter, Washington D.C., after which we travelled to Florida. This state is especially known for the cutthroat Bush vs. Gore battle during the 2000 Presidential election, as well as for the diversity of its voters, including a large Hispanic population.
After doing some sightseeing on Sunday, Monday marked the official start of the program. We immediately immersed ourselves into the U.S.’s multilevel governance system by attending a fascinating briefing on federalism that outlined the U.S. institutions, their competencies, and the checks and balances between them. This meeting set the stage for what we were to see live at the state level a few days later, when visiting Florida.
The highlight of the afternoon was a meeting with a private digital communications consultancy. During this briefing, the participants exchanged ideas and practices on how to use digital communication technologies to interact with constituents. We all left the meeting feeling inspired by how we could incorporate these digital engagement tools in our work of engaging the public. As we learned, an increasing part of the electorate can be reached with modern communication means. We also learned that having access to these tools has in recent years fundamentally changed the way in which political campaigns are conducted in the United States and abroad.
On Tuesday, the group gathered bright and early for a promising day of briefings on election rules and enforcement mechanisms to ensure fair elections on the federal, state, district, and county level. In some aspects, the American system differs from European elections, and the participants were genuinely fascinated and eager to learn more. Commissioner Ellen Weintraub of the Federal Election Commission discovered that the participants were particularly intrigued by the system of campaign financing, which is very different from how campaigns are generally funded in Europe.
— US Mission to the EU (@US2EU) February 10, 2016
The afternoon meeting with a large labor union was equally interesting. The U.S. interlocutors—who had obviously done their research on how each MEP had voted on TTIP—engaged in a lively discussion not only on the role of unions in American politics, but also on a very specific U.S.-EU policy area.
By Wednesday, everyone had adjusted to the local time zone. After a meeting at the CATO Institute, a think tank known for a libertarian approach to policy, we packed our bags and stepped on the plane to Jacksonville, Florida. None of the program participants had travelled to the region so we did not know what to expect from the environment, the places we would visit, and the people we would meet. Our first day in Jacksonville started with a three-hour drive to Florida’s State capital, Tallahassee. Here we learned about local campaign activists’ strategies to mobilize voters and get them to the polls. For example, we were told that churches often rent busses to transport people to the polling station after Sunday mass.
After a quick lunch—fried chicken and French fries—in a restaurant packed with school children visiting from all over Florida, we attended a session of the Florida State Senate. The Senate voting process was also notably different from the European process. Senators busily mingling with their teams and other Senators, navigating the floor while the bills up for voting were read-out in record speed. The whole scene looked quite different from a European Parliament plenary session where Members are expected to be in their seat and to remain there during the meeting. Each visitor received an individual shout-out from the floor by Senator Aaron Bean, which was a very nice gesture.
On Friday, the last day of the tour we met with local volunteer representatives from of the Clinton, Rubio and Sanders campaigns. We quickly learned how campaigns create voter outreach strategies based on information such as demographics and information provided by voters on their preferences. The volunteers spoke in detail about how they approach voters, encouraging them to register and cast their vote for their candidate. While these individuals are attached to one particular candidate’s campaign, they are also key in informing citizens of the election process and the voter registration requirements in general, thereby playing an important role in the democratic process. That same day, we met with Duval County Election Supervisor Mike Hogan. The tour of the county’s facilities was fascinating. We were shown the automated machines, the storage space, the arrangements put in place for elderly and disabled etc. In short: the entire electoral infrastructure seemed extremely well thought through and prepared up to perfection.
After the meeting, we continued discussing what we had seen during a spontaneous stop at a local coffee place; our last one as a group together. I believe that this week has provided the participants with a behind the scene look at U.S. elections and politics by allowing them to interact with a wide range of U.S. interlocutors who are active on different levels and components of the democratic process, and in different campaigns. The objective of this tour was to give participants the opportunity to see multiple aspects, viewpoints, processes, and organizations related to the U.S. electoral system. The participants and I have gained a better understanding of the similarities and differences between our electoral systems. I am confident that they gained important insights on how the vast American electoral system works at the different levels and how to engage citizens. This program gave me and others an objective understanding of the United States electoral process is shaped and formed by its society, culture, and political system.