Get Out The Vote

Get Out The Vote

The 2000 US Presidential election proved that every vote counts—especially those cast from overseas. This time around, expats are making sure their voices are heard


Originally published on on October 2008


If last month’s debate between Democrats and Republicans in Roppongi is any indication, American expats are fired up and ready to go for the November 4 presidential election. At British pub Hobgoblin, ideas were being cast about as zealously as the drinks. On a range of issues from healthcare to foreign affairs, the chair of Democrats Abroad Japan, Lauren Shannon, and the co-chairman of Republicans Abroad Japan, Lance Gatling, went head-to-head before a crowd of politically engaged expats.

“I know we all have busy schedules,” Shannon says, “but this year there seems to be unprecedented interest among Americans and foreigners around the world in our presidential elections.”

This comes as no surprise—with the economy faltering, the Iraq war still smoldering, and the US’ reputation in the eyes of the global community thoroughly muddied, it’s clear that the millions of overseas Americans are likely to be more committed to voting than ever.

Here in Tokyo, the enthusiasm is palpable. According to the Overseas Vote Foundation, Japan has the seventh highest number American expat voters. Participation in Democrats Abroad Japan, says Shannon, has risen by 50 percent this year compared with the last election.

With an estimated 6 million Americans living overseas, it’s clear why vote-from-abroad efforts are so crucial. According to the website of Republicans Abroad (the Tokyo branch did not respond to repeated requests for an interview), a mere 17 percent of eligible overseas voters cast ballots in the last election. Obviously, with the polls showing presidential races remarkably close, the cliché “every vote counts” actually starts to have some resonance.

One only need recall the infamous 2000 US presidential race, in which Democrat Al Gore was defeated by just 537 votes in Florida, to recognize the importance of each and every ballot—especially those from overseas voters. Figures showed that Gore was actually ahead by 202 votes in Florida before absentee ballots were counted, nudging Republican George W. Bush into the lead. With most states having their own individual rules for accepting and tallying votes from overseas, the potentially game-changing effects of absentee ballots looms large.

After the 2000 fiasco, political organizers became all the more motivated to guarantee that no vote is overlooked. “Strenuous efforts are being made to ensure that overseas voters are on a level playing field,” says Andy Sundberg, director of the NPO advocacy group American Citizens Abroad. “Too many voting districts have a cavalier attitude towards overseas ballots, and many are not being counted.”

The effort to register overseas voters kicked up a gear in the 2004 race, and has become even more urgent in the current election. Democrats Abroad reports a “dramatic increase in overseas voter participation,” and other organizations have noticed the rise as well. “We have had 3.5 million visitors to date to [the] 17 websites that we host,” says Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and CEO of Overseas Vote Foundation. “During the month of October, we’ve been averaging about 51,000 visitors a day who come to our sites for a variety of different service needs, including voter registration and ballot requests.”

With the lesson of 2000 in mind, political organizers here in Japan have been working frantically to register voters—and then making sure they submit their ballots. Although there are approximately 60,000 Americans in Japan eligible to vote, Shannon of Democrats Abroad suggests that motivating them to actually do so requires genuine effort. “We have to constantly remind voters that they have to send in the materials,” she says. “So many people get busy and print out the forms but don’t remember to mail them on time. It is a big challenge for us.”

Many American expats in Tokyo, however, need no such prompting. “I’m much more dedicated to making sure my vote gets in on time. I actually sent it in last week, express mail,” says American expat Amy Woodbridge, 25, an editor from the swing state of Pennsylvania. “I check current poll standings pretty regularly, and at one point Pennsylvania went from ‘weak Democrat’ to ‘barely Democrat’ to ‘tied.’ I freaked out and told my mom that if Pennsylvania went red in this election, I wasn’t coming home.’”

Elsewhere in the world, keeping expats engaged in the political process can be a challenge. “I definitely don’t feel I’ve been reached out to by any organization here in the UK,” says Jamie Marie, a 28-year-old pharmacist. “I don’t know how I would even go about voting, and have certainly not seen any efforts made in this country to compel me to vote back in the States.”

For citizens of other countries, voting from abroad brings additional challenges. If you’re an expat from the UK, for example, you must register with the embassy or by snail mail, and then have another UK citizen witness your vote before you send it back. The process is further complicated by the fact that ballots are generally mailed out only one week before the election.

UK citizens may also choose to vote by proxy, meaning they can select a registered voter resident in Britain to cast a ballot on their behalf. Yet after 15 years of residing overseas, Brits are no longer eligible to vote at all. In fact, civilian British expats were only given the right to cast a ballot in 1985.

Australia is another country that treats overseas voters differently than domestic ones. While voting is compulsory for citizens living in the country, expat Aussies are exempt from the requirement if they submit the necessary documentation. However, they may forfeit their right to cast a ballot if they do not register and vote for a period of six years.

Other countries, including Ireland and South Africa, forbid expats from voting at all. On the opposite end of the scale, France and Croatia have an MP to represent their overseas citizens.

Navigating the various rules can be difficult. “There’s not really any information about Australian elections here unless you actively go out looking for it,” says Elizabeth Li, 28, an Aussie expat in Tokyo. ”I went to the embassy to vote in the state election last year because I was emailed a reminder. I think if it wasn’t compulsory, I would still put my vote in, but I’m not particularly passionate about politics. My vote counts, but in the end, there’s not much difference between the parties.”

Since the debacle in 2000, the internet has made it easier for Americans to vote from abroad. All it takes is to sign up via and request a ballot to be sent to an overseas address. Regulations are relatively lax—as long as you register or sign up with your home state, you should be able to receive an absentee ballot. Then it’s just a matter of mailing it back to the US from any post office or the US Embassy.

“I was actually surprised how simple the absentee ballot application was,” says Woodbridge from Pennsylvania. “I expected it to be really complicated, but they’ve made the website and form really easy.”

Yet both Democrat and Republican officials agree on the need for further improvements. “The rules and regulations surrounding absentee voting must be made simpler and more uniform and we should find secure means to vote electronically,” the McCain/Palin campaign said a statement. “John McCain will reform existing legislation to ensure all Americans have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.”

Dzieduszycka-Suinat of Overseas Vote Foundation has specific ideas on how to accomplish this. “Two things could help very much: one, less fragmentation of the effort; two, less partisanship infused into the voter registration effort … Mixed messages and motivations are confusing for voters. In the US, the major voter registration organizations are not housed in the political parties, and they should not be overseas, either.”

Political activists overseas are pushing for legislation to simplify the vote-from-abroad process and to increase uniformity of how absentee ballots are processed nationwide. Shannon has further suggestions. “I would like to see all US universities that send their students on study abroad programs take a more cooperative and active role in making sure their students are informed about voting from abroad. I would also, in non-English speaking countries, like to see ESL programs offer assistance for their teachers and easy access to voting information.”

Meanwhile, the situation faced by politically motivated expats in Tokyo is looking up. Shannon was impressed with the help she got from the locals, in particular the bipartisan voter assistance at the National Azabu grocery store. “We were there every Saturday from early summer until [our last voter registration day], and as word got out, more and more people sent their friends over. We had great success that built all summer long.”

As the world’s attention focuses on this week’s presidential election, overseas voters will be tuning in with special interest. They made a difference once—and may find themselves doing so again.

“The fact that millions of votes can parachute in and, with no one knowing just how many will, that’s what makes it very serious,” says Dzieduszycka-Suinat of the Overseas Vote Foundation. “People talk about ‘game changers’ a lot today. The overseas vote could be just that when it comes to counting the ballots.’”

Our readers speak out!

Last month, Metropolis conducted an online poll gauging the political attitudes of foreigners in Japan. Here’s a sampling of the results; for full coverage, see

Are you registered to vote? (US citizens only)
Yes, as a Republican – 6.6%
Yes, as a Democrat – 36.8%
Yes, as an independent – 25.0%
No – 31.6%

I support
John McCain – 9.1%
Barack Obama – 77.8%
Neither – 13.1%

I would describe myself as
very conservative – 2.0%
moderately conservative – 11.0%
very liberal – 22.0%
moderately liberal – 51.0%
none of the above – 14.0%

I am in favor of
stricter marijuana laws – 13.1%
more lenient marijuana laws – 60.6%
no change in marijuana laws – 26.3%

What is your opinion of George W. Bush’s presidency?
Very positive – 0.0%
Somewhat positive – 4.0%
Very negative – 75.0%
Somewhat negative – 17.0%
Neutral – 4.0%

Gun rights in the US should be
increased – 3.0%
maintained at the current level – 26.0%
curtailed – 71.0%

The US military presence in Japan
should be scaled back, with fewer bases – 59.0%
should remain at its current level – 38.0%
should be increased – 3.0%

With respect to North Korea, the US should
take a harder line and consider military action – 10.0%
maintain the current diplomatic effort – 27.0%
attempt to ease tensions with further engagement – 63.0%