Since the 2000 presidential election, both parties have stressed the notion that every vote counts. As a result, get-out-the-vote efforts have stretched beyond America’s borders, targeting U.S. citizens living overseas.
Reaching out to expatriate voters is an inexact science. Without census data, the number of American citizens living overseas is estimated anywhere from four million to ten million. While the largest ex-pat communities reside in Mexico, Canada and Great Britain, there are no hard statistics about the expat population’s demographic breakdown or how many are eligible to vote.
But one thing Republicans, Democrats and independent observers agree on is that the parties are actively reaching out to those voters more than ever. The Calgary Herald reports more than 340,000 absentee ballots have already been requested by Americans overseas, compared with a total of about 250,000 four years ago, and absentee requests historically increase closer to Election Day. As Kerry supporter Anne Jayne – now living in Calgary but eligible to vote in Virginia – said:
“There is a lot of interest in this election. And there is a lot of interest in voting. People want to vote this time around.
“Americans, wherever they live, are affected by the U.S. government. I care about things like jobs, education, health, because I have family there. Who is in the White House profoundly affects everyone.”
Republicans have credited overseas votes with handing George Bush the White House, as Al Gore had a 202-vote lead in Florida before those votes were counted, and Bush led by 537 afterward. The organization Republicans Abroad now has chapters in 50 countries, and the likes of Karl Rove, Jeb Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Dan Quayle have stumped overseas for the GOP. As Ryan King of Republicans Abroad told the Washington Post:
“People are motivated. You have people literally coming out of the woodwork to register. This is a very contentious, personal election. People really feel that it’s going to affect them personally.”
Not to be outdone, Democrats Abroad now has chapters in 73 countries (up from 30 in 2000), including the “Donkeys in the Desert” chapter in Iraq. Those efforts have received a boost from Diana Kerry, John’s multilingual sister, who has already campaigned for her brother in Mexico, Canada, Great Britain, France, Austria, Germany and Ireland. Newspaper accounts cite expat Democrats who haven’t voted in decades but plan to change that this year. Susan Mullen, a U.S. citizen living in British Columbia, told the B.C. Times Colonist she’s seen evidence of that trend:
“People like me know how we’re perceived in the world, because we’re living in it. We’re seeing the damage being done to the image of the U.S. We need a change in administration so we can reach out to the world again, because the guys we’ve got now are just not going to do it.
“I hadn’t really planned on getting into any of this. When I came up from Washington state five years ago, I just knew that I wanted to continue to vote. But I wanted to do more than that this year, because it’s so important.”
The goal for Democrats is to cut into the typical Republican advantage among overseas votes which, according to the International Herald Tribune, usually comes to about 3-to-1 thanks to the military vote. The Electoral College only complicates things, as overseas votes are counted in the voter’s home state, regardless of how long ago they lived there, and there’s no effective way to target swing-state expat voters. But voters are clearly taking more of an interest this year. As Amsterdam-based American Claire Taylor told the Herald Tribune:
“People here were feeling very frustrated and very helpless about what was happening in Iraq. But now, they can do something.”