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.”
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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.
But this year, the level of outreach has been unprecedented, explained Margo Miller, a former Dems Abroad UK chair who served as a Clinton delegate in Denver and has lived in London for nine years. “We got organized much earlier this time around than we did in 2004,” Miller said. “We made the difference in the Senate races in Virginia and Montana.” That momentum has continued unabated through 2008.
Miller’s big push in Britain is making sure potential voters know about the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot (FWAB). Available only to Americans who live out of the country, the FWAB acts as a backup if voters do not receive an absentee ballot from their home state. But for Miller the beauty of the FWAB is that voters can fill it out along with their state ballot without worrying they are committing some sort of fraud by filling in two ballots. “It’s been around for a few voting cycles, but it’s confusing,” Miller admitted. “It’s not double voting. There’s a lot of education we have to do.”
With an influx of volunteers, Miller has been able to run numerous phone banks to reach out to voters and help them track down their absentee ballots while informing them of their right to fill out a FWAB. Miller and her colleagues have their work cut out for them, explained Bob Brager, chair of Democrats Abroad Netherlands and a global chair of the Democrats Abroad platform committee.
Some of the requirements imposed by the 7,000 different voter registrars across the country make it theoretically impossible for Americans abroad to vote, Brager explained. Various counties require voters to come in person to a county office for a signature, while others require documents to be locally notarized. “Federal laws protect us somewhat, but there is still work to do,” Brager added. Smallhoover explained that some registrars ask voters to register as permanent overseas residents, while others expect voters abroad to submit their sample ballot as their actual ballot. “Our focus is straightening out the messes,” Smallhoover said.
Like Miller, Brager was a delegate to the DNC convention in Denver, but he represented Obama. “It was passionate,” he noted, explaining that Obama was “hugely successful globally,” garnering roughly two-to-one margins over Clinton from the Democrats Abroad Super Tuesday primary. “It was hard, because a lot of the Hillary people were so profoundly disappointed there were harsh feelings that persisted,” Brager said, “but I think the party is unified, because the choice is so appalling. You get Sarah Palin? The party is behind Barack Obama.”
That is the other no-brainer difference from 2004, Brager explained: the contrast between then-candidate John Kerry and the party’s current nominee. “Kerry is a wonderful man, but the party took him because they were told they should, that he could win, but I don’t think he ever inspired the passion.”
“We got a different candidate who has vast worldwide appeal,” Smallhoover said of Obama. “The local media is making our task far easier overseas. They are spending a great deal of time focusing on this election. The people who have been active for years have become more active, while the campaigns of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton brought out new activists.”
For many Democrats overseas the make-or-break date was October 6, the deadline for many counties to have their ballots returned. But many other states and counties will take ballots postmarked until election day. In the meantime Brager is telling Democrats Abroad, “Don’t give up, just vote.”
Despite all the election and ballot arcana, Brager said the real excitement has come from bringing people who have felt disenfranchised for decades back into the political process.
“We had a woman who came to us about a month ago who has lived in the Netherlands since 1954, a black woman from the Deep South who had never voted,” Brager said. “She met a Dutch guy–most of us are here for the guys. She came to us and said, ‘I don’t know where to begin, but I want to vote in this election.’ We helped her do it. It was a joy, just a great, great joy.”