A spike in voter registrations by expatriate Americans has raised the prospect of absentee ballots once again tipping a U.S. presidential election.
With a small percentage of the electorate at home still undecided, “the name of the game is to mobilize voters,” said Jamin Raskin, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C.
“What you’ve got to determine is, what is the expat vote in swing states,” said Raskin, who was also a delegate to the Democratic National Convention for the political group Democrats Abroad.
It was in Florida in 2000, after all, where absentee ballots played such a decisive role in the 40 days of recounts and court rulings that ultimately gave George W. Bush the White House.
“No more apathy”
In 2004, Republicans and Democrats from Mexico City to Hong Kong are pushing to get ballots into the hands of the estimated 4 to 10 million. Americans living abroad.
Some 340,000 absentee ballot request forms were sent out by the Federal Voting Assistance Program as of mid-July, compared with 250,000 in the same period in 2000.
An arm of the Department of Defense, FVAP this year is serving about 6 million Americans overseas, both military and civilian.
Typically, U.S. citizens residing abroad vote less than those in the military or their civilian counterparts in the U.S. (PDF).
In 2000, only 37 percent of those living overseas voted, compared to the 69 percent of the military and 51 percent of the general public in the US that cast ballots. (PDF).
Though the FVAP provides assistance and information to civilians living abroad, there is no specific program to assist non-military personnel in registering to vote absentee. Those efforts have largely been taken up by the two parties through their distinct overseas agencies.
While Democrats Abroad sends voting delegates to the Democratic National Convention, essentially functioning as what many members refer to as the “fifty-first state,” Republicans Abroad is a 527 nonprofit fundraising group, not an official GOP entity.
Democrats Abroad has seen the number of countries with local chapters swell from 28 to 73 worldwide since 2000.
The group is campaigning hard across Europe, where it hopes to take advantage of native anti-Bush sentiment — 76 percent of Europeans now express disapproval of U.S. foreign policy, up 20 percent in two years, according to a 2004 Transatlantic Trends survey.
“So many people are saying, ‘I feel so guilty for not voting in 2000,'” said Sharon Manitta, a spokeswoman for Democrats Abroad and a New York state native who has lived in the United Kingdom for 27 years.
Among those who regret not voting last time is 47-year-old Bill Piccolo, an American who has lived in Amsterdam for eight years.
“No more apathy for me,” said Piccolo at a voter registration table in the Dutch capital. Piccolo cites his disapproval of the war in Iraq as his reason for voting for the first time in at least 12 years.
Hoping to capitalize on this sentiment, the Democrats launched a webpage this summer, www.overseasvote2004.com, that they say has been registering absentee voters at the rate of 1,600 per day.
The Kerry campaign even organized Americans Overseas for Kerry, chaired by the candidate’s sister Diana, who has traveled in Europe, Latin America and Canada to rally party faithful.
Democrats for Bush
Republicans Abroad has increased the number of its international chapters from 12 to 50, said Joan L. Hills, a resident of Washington, D.C., and the co-chairwoman of Republicans Abroad. In Israel, for example, she said there was no active chapter in 2000.
Kory Bardash, a nine-year resident of Israel and chairman of the Republicans Abroad chapter there, estimates there are at least 100,000 Americans of voting age living in the Jewish state.
Bardash said his group has registered at least 16,000 voters, many of whom “are not confident in John Kerry’s ability.”
“I have many people coming to me and saying, ‘I’m a Democrat. I want to remain a Democrat but I want to vote for President Bush,'” said Bardash.
Like his Democratic counterparts, Bardash is striving to identify voters from Florida, Ohio and other swing states, networking through social groups and Internet chat rooms.
He estimates that half of the voters they have registered are from swing states.
In Germany, the former vice president Dan Quayle has campaigned for the GOP ticket, and George P. Bush, Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s son, has been stumping for his uncle in Mexico, where about 1 million U.S. citizens live.
Voting from abroad is a complicated process that involves a total of four mailings to cast a ballot.
Volunteers from Republicans and Democrats Abroad help voters with paperwork, and strive to put to rest common fears about absentee voting — that the right to vote expires once one has lived abroad for too long or that absentee ballots are not counted.
“There’s something so depressing about being abroad, really caring about the election, but [hearing] that absentee ballots are never counted,” said Rachel Kanarowski, a 24-year-old American living in Prague who will vote in Wisconsin.
In response to these fears, many states are accepting requests for absentee ballots via fax, rather than postal mail.
And states will now be required to notify absentee voters if their ballot was not counted, said Hills of Republicans Abroad.
With the electorial stakes so high, partisans have been on edge. Democrats were quick to cry foul last week, when the Pentagon blocked access to the FVAP Web site from a number of overeas Internet service providers.
The Defense Department said the move was to protect their networks from hackers, but according to an Associated Press report has restored access to “most, but not all, users.”
Independent efforts by Americans living abroad are also getting results.
Tell An American to Vote was co-founded by Claire Taylor, a U.S. citizen who has not voted in the 19 years she’s lived in Amsterdam.
When Taylor’s Dutch friends and colleagues began saying that they wished they could vote for the U.S. president, the professional copywriter decided to ask non-Americans to encourage their American friends to vote.
Today, the web site provides voter information in 13 languages and registers more than 50 people a day, she said.
Raskin, of Democrats Abroad and the American University, said the 2004 campaign has cemented the status of expatriates as a political force to be reckoned with.
“There’s no going back on the new focus on finding, registering and mobilizing overseas Americans,” he said.