The words Russia and elections together in a headline can be positive news.
Central Michigan University recently invited a group of Russian political leaders to study democracy and election processes. The weeklong visit was part of a U.S. Congressional program sponsored by CMU's Department of Political Science and Public Administration.
Discovering American democracy
The Open World Leadership Center, established by the U.S. Congress in 1999, has hosted more than 27,000 Eurasian leaders in the global exchange program. Delegates from participating countries are selected and vetted by federal agencies and receive an orientation in Washington, D.C. They are then paired with colleges, universities and other institutions to learn about American democratic processes.
The theme of this year's exchange was political party development. CMU's delegation included members of the Yabloko Russia United Democratic party, human rights activists, party organizers and volunteers, an interpreter, and a program facilitator.
Separate but similar
The delegates visited several CMU classes and participated in a Soup and Substance event with students, faculty and staff.
Courtney Johnson, a sophomore secondary education major focusing on history and social studies: political science, said it was fascinating to learn she had so much in common with some members of the delegation.
"We see a lot of anti-Russian propaganda here that makes it seem as though everyone there supports Putin and hates the U.S. But the truth is there are many different opinions in Russia about the way government should run, just as there are different opinions here. There are those who are happy with the current leadership and those who are not," Johnson said.
Johnson said the delegates who visited her political science class expressed hope and pessimism in equal measure. They desire change, but have been forcefully excluded from participation in politics for decades, she said.
"Here in the U.S., people who are not happy can show it by exercising their right to assemble, protest and, more importantly, vote. It can be much more difficult and even dangerous for Russians," she said.
Making the most of limited time
"Although we had only one week with them here in Michigan, we had a very full agenda," said David Jesuit, chair of the political science and public administration department at CMU.
Jesuit organized the exchange and facilitated the delegates' journey through the state.
"They met with state representatives in Lansing, county commissioners, lobbyists, mayors, city clerks, student leaders, Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisan municipal officials. They saw grassroots democracy up close here in Isabella county. They also were able to see the enormous work that election officials and volunteers have before them in preparing for elections, especially in densely populated areas such as metro Detroit."
Jesuit said the delegates were shocked by the ease with which ordinary citizens interact with their elected officials and the limited barriers to participation in government.
"Despite the challenges we face in the U.S., we often forget how many advantages we have when it comes to promoting political changes through democratic elections," he said.
Democracy in action
All semester, student organizations such as REV CMU have been encouraging students to register to vote. Now their efforts are aimed at increasing student voter turnout by helping students learn more about polling locations, absentee ballots, and issues and candidates in this year's election.
Johnson has been encouraging her friends to register to vote and plans to travel home to vote next month.
"Democracy, when it is practiced correctly, allows everyone to participate. Every vote matters, and every vote is a voice," Johnson said.