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No vote, no problem: Duke international students find voice in 2012 race

Many Duke students are ineligible to vote in the upcoming election, but that does not stop them from engaging in U.S. politics.

International students who do not have U.S. citizenship are unable to cast ballots in the 2012 general elections. However, as students at an American university and current residents of the U.S., the outcome of the election has real ramifications for the international Duke community, some international students said.

Despite not being able to cast a vote—a right many Duke students are enjoying for their first time—sophomore Breno Maciel, who hails from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, said he has taken the time to familiarize himself with the American political system.

At his freshman year activities fair, Maciel joined Duke Democrats and Duke College Republicans to immerse himself in both major U.S. political parties. This task would have been much more difficult had an American traveled to Brazil for college, where there are 36 competitive parties, he said.

“I am a political science major, so politics has always been one of my major interests,” Maciel noted. “As soon as I came to the U.S., I knew I wanted to get involved in American politics. Right at the beginning, I didn’t know where I stood.... With time I made the choice to define myself as a Republican.”

More than a year later, Maciel has solidified himself as a GOP supporter and has taken to volunteering for the Republican Party this election season. In addition to making a donation to the Romney campaign, he has been going to door-to-door for the Durham GOP for the past two months.

Being an active and enthusiastic volunteer allows Maciel to create an impact in the election results without voting, he said.

“I don’t feel marginalized, especially because I’ve been spending so much time with the [Duke College] Republicans,” he said. “They were excited to know that somebody who could not vote would help them promote the candidacy of Mitt Romney. Even though I cannot vote, I feel good because I was able to convince voters to go to the polling place, and I was able to help structure the campaign.”

Nonny Scott, a sophomore from London, said she, too, began to pay attention to American politics when she moved here a year ago. Before starting at Duke, Scott said she knew little about the U.S. political system beyond the past few presidents.

But Duke students are apt to engage in political discussion, she said, and many American political decisions can directly influence Scott and the people she cares about, so entering the political dialogue is hard to avoid.

Scott was not engaged in the 2008 general election where many young Americans were excited about electing President Barack Obama. She said she supports the president, but not with the fervor of many of his 2008 supporters.

Scott, who said a lot of her political knowledge has been informed by conversations she has shared with her peers, called Obama a “lesser of two evils.”

“My economics-student friends all seem to prefer Romney, however, I just could never ever vote for someone with the views of social matters that he has,” she said. “So, I prefer Obama on principle, but unfortunately not because of any shining quality of his own.”

Some international students carry dual citizenship between the United States and their home country, like junior Jaakov Schulman, whose mother is Finnish and father is an American. Schulman, who volunteers as the vice president for political affairs for Duke Democrats, has spent significant parts of his life in both the United States and Finland. He said his dual citizenship and residency has encouraged him to engage in both American and Finnish politics.

“I phone banked from Finland using Skype in the ’08 [general election],” he said. “Little did people know I was calling from abroad.”

Having direct experience with their native political systems, both Scott and Maciel voiced criticisms of the U.S. political structure. Deciding a president via the electoral college is inferior to using the popular vote, as is practiced in Brazil, Maciel said—a sentiment that may soon become more popular as some political analysts have said there is a feasible chance that Obama will win the election without carrying the popular vote.

Lavish campaign spending and hostility toward individual candidates are two facets of American politics that Scott criticized.

“When politicians campaign [in England], there is a lot less money bandied around and it’s more about the party than the people,” she said. “And the campaigns slurring the other party are ridiculous. We have them too, I’m not denying that, but I don’t think it’s the sign of a good campaign at all.”

Outsiders’ perspectives have helped international students form their political convictions. Scott, who is familiar with the British government-funded health care system, said Medicare and Medicaid must be reformed to more resemble European ones if America wants to provide sounds health care to its citizens.

“The World Health Organization did a report and ranked the U.S.’s health care system as 37th in the world,” she said. “It was France who came first. They have a very ‘socialised’ medical care system—high taxes, people pay upfront and are then refunded by the government. The sicker you are the more you get refunded, up to 100 percent, which is far more humane than what goes on in the U.S.”

The more conservative Maciel said he believes that America must keep a strong presence internationally and continue to enthusiastically promote the principles of capitalism and democracy abroad, noting that Brazil’s transition from a dictatorship to a democracy was greatly aided by the U.S.’s investment in these principles. He also said a move toward freer trade and stronger international market integration will benefit Latin America economically.

“I lived in a country with universal health care and free education,” Schulman said. “I lived in a city that was safe enough for me to commute alone on a subway what I was ten. Those are conditions that make an alternative seem more tangible.”

Immigration policies may determine whether internationals without citizenship can remain in the U.S. as students or in the labor market, he added.

But an international student’s political sentiments need not be dictated by their country of origin, said John Scott-Jones, a junior from Ohope, New Zealand. Scott-Jones, who is a political science major and an Obama supporter, said he is very vocally active and joked that the “Obama 2012” sticker on his laptop could be a sign of his engagement in the American political system.

“I don’t think being international has really influenced my thoughts during this campaign,” he said in an email Sunday. “I’m more affected by being human. Obama talking about gay marriage openly was a huge step forward, [and] his support of the DREAM Act seems like the right thing to do as far as I am concerned.”

Despite their political differences, Scott, Maciel, Scott-Jones and Schulman all said non-Americans are much more aware of U.S. politics than vice versa. America exported Obama much like it exports McDonald’s and Nike, Maciel noted.

“All Kiwis could tell you who the president of the United States is, but I don’t think anyone outside of New Zealand really cares who our prime minister is—John Key,” Scott-Jones added. “Did you even know we had a prime minister rather than a president? We are only 4 million people and we do live in Middle Earth, so it’s understandable not to care.”

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