It’s a windy early October night in London, but that hasn’t stopped more than 100 Americans from coming out to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, just off Piccadilly Circus. The well-heeled and enthusiastic crowd mills about BAFTA’s bar, waiting to get into the screening room, where the UK chapter of Democrats Abroad is showing the first presidential debate between Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain. No matter that the debate took place almost a week before; Democrats Abroad is hosting another successful fundraising event in its quest to get expatriate Americans to vote in the 2008 presidential election.
Around the globe Democrats Abroad is capitalizing on excitement over a potential Democratic presidency. “It’s extraordinary,” said William Barnard, the chair of Democrats Abroad UK, over the din of the cocktail crowd. Four years ago his group saw an increase in enthusiasm and turnout as American expats came out to vote against George W. Bush’s re-election, but that pales in comparison to what’s been happening for the past eighteen months. “We’re pushing quadrupling our numbers,” Barnard explained of Democrats Abroad UK. “There’s been a similar phenomenon around the world, and in some instances even more dramatic increases, like in Indonesia.”
Barnard notes that like at home, enthusiasm began building during the primary process, where the rock star candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama energized Democrats. The fact that Democrats Abroad created its own primary day to coincide with February’s Super Tuesday, with 107 polling places around the world and the ability to vote online, also helped generate interest. “We got a venue that would hold all of the people we had in 2004 at one time,” Barnard said. “People were lined up around the block five deep trying to cast their vote. The police told us we had to ask people to leave.”
Since the Johnson administration, Democrats Abroad has been organizing Americans in foreign countries, often being the first source to tell them they have the right to vote in federal elections even if they are out of the country. (It took the group a few years, but by the mid-1970s all eligible Americans outside the United States were finally given the full right to vote in federal elections.) The number of Americans living abroad is still sketchy, since no one has ever done an official count, but the estimates run between 6 million and 7 million. In comparison, Massachusetts has a population of about 6.5 million.
Americans abroad have their votes tallied as part of their home state’s total, but Democrats Abroad is recognized as a “state” party and is represented on the Democratic National Committee by eight voting members and at the presidential election-year conventions.
This is in stark contrast to the GOP’s international organization. Joseph Smallhoover, international counsel for Democrats Abroad, its France country chair and a DNC member, calls Republicans Abroad “nothing more than a club. They have never had representation on the RNC. They have never sat on an official delegation.” While Smallhoover suggested Republicans Abroad has focused mainly on fundraising, he notes Democrats “can have a serious political impact even while living overseas.”
In Britain, Democrats Abroad holds more than 100 registration events during big election years, which includes going to American schools, local sports bars and major events likely to draw a US crowd, such as Wimbledon and the annual exhibition NFL game at Wembley Stadium. The group even canvasses outside London’s Whole Foods supermarket.