You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

The Expat Factor

On Super Tuesday, the first votes to be registered in the presidential primaries were not in Georgia, West Virginia, or New Jersey, but in Jakarta, Indonesia--where Barack Obama spent four years of his childhood, and where early polls showed him trouncing Hillary Clinton.

Right now, thousands of Democrats living abroad are voting online, using a secure website with a personalized 10-digit individual ballot number to log their choices for this year's presidential candidate. Organized by Democrats Abroad, the official overseas arm of the party, this first-ever online “Global Primary” will elect 22 delegates, just one less than North Dakota.

The vote began on February 5 and will continue until today, February 12, at 10 a.m. GMT--adding international excitement to today's "Potomac Primary." The delegates will be chosen by the same method states use, but with three regions of the world (the Americas; Asia-Pacific; and Europe-Middle East-Africa) functioning like congressional districts. Each of the three districts will elect three delegates each, based proportionally on how their districts voted, with a candidate needing over two-thirds of the vote to win all three delegates in a district. In addition, there will be eight unpledged superdelegates from the membership ranks of Democrats Abroad, and a final five delegates--three pledged to echo the vote totals and two additional superdelegates--elected by the first 17.

In a race where every delegate matters, Clinton and Obama are actively courting the Democratic diaspora. Both Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton have made fund-raising trips to England, and Obama himself held three teleconference events with voters in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing. Based on early projections, expatriates are voting in record number this year--and giving money at record levels as well. 

In 1976, the Overseas Voting Rights Act made it mandatory for every state to provide a way for its former residents to vote in primary and general elections. Any U.S. citizen abroad could vote in his or her state of last residence if that state had a primary (rather than a caucus) system. The Democratic National Committee went further than just enabling international absentee balloting: It gave expats 22 convention delegates to represent their interests as a bloc--a number that has remained constant over the past three decades despite the significant increase in the number of Americans living overseas. (Republicans Abroad is an unofficial arm of the Republican Party, and has no comparable role in the GOP's nominating contest.)

Democrats Abroad's new online voting system is just the latest tactic in the group's efforts to boost participation. From 1976 to 1988, Democrats overseas voted by mail for their delegates, drawing scant numbers. In 1992, Democrats Abroad unsuccessfully tried to bolster numbers by using a caucus system in major international cities. But the majority of Democrats could not attend a caucus in an international hub and remained disenfranchised. The only other option--to vote absentee in their home states--was (and remains) difficult. Laws about overseas voting are variable by state, sometimes arcane, and often wildly inconvenient. Most require foreigners to provide a self-addressed, stamped envelope. “Where do you buy U.S. stamps in Phnom Penh?” asked Democrats Abroad’s Cambodia Chair, Wayne Weightman, who in 2006 paid a friend traveling to the U.S. $50 to pick some up so that his vote would count. He was one of a slim percentage of expats willing to go through the hassle: In 2006, only 992,034 of the four to seven million Americans estimated to be abroad requested ballots--and only about 330,000 were actually cast. Of the remaining uncast votes, a government study found that 70 percent had been returned as “undeliverable” to elections officials.

An online system--developed by the San Diego-based software company Everyone Counts--will be used this year in tandem with physical voting stations in major international cities like Jakarta. It will be the first time that “scattered populations” can easily weigh in, say Democrats Abroad officials. And now, residents of countries where democracy is a sensitive subject can vote without offending the sometimes delicate sensibilities of their host countries. “We don’t want concern that we were advocating democracy in China,” says Joshua Kurtzig, the Beijing head of Democrats Abroad. A Beijing Get Out The Vote event preceding registration was held at a pizza place a stone’s throw from the Worker’s Stadium’s harsh communist statuary, but the group did not put a sign up outside. Gary Suwannarat, Asia-Pacific Regional Vice-Chair of Democrats Abroad, explained that the group established no “polling centers” of staffed computers in China. “I don’t want some bureaucrat in Beijing to raise an eyebrow,” she said. Elsewhere, she noted, meet-ups have been “cautious about taking a public position or attracting publicity.” In Cambodia, Weightman spoke of a fear that his polling center could be seen as a “good target,” and that anyone with an anti-American stance might think, “Oh, I can hit the American election right here locally.”

Meet-ups have been organized at foreigner-friendly locales around the world. In Tokyo, expats met at Pizza Mia; in Bangkok, the flavor of home was found at Starbucks; and in Phnom Penh, Americans headed to USA Donuts--a venue chosen, Weightman says, because it's the “only shop in town that serves Red Vine licorice.” At the Beijing Get Out The Vote event, organizers expected about 50 Democrats to show up; instead, hundreds came.

Based on the number of votes that have come in so far, officials from Democrats Abroad estimate that nearly 20,000 votes will be cast this year--as opposed to the 2,239 they registered in 2004. According to Kurtzig, the number of voters in Beijing alone has at least tripled since the last presidential election. 

So, with Democrats overseas voting in unprecedented numbers, who stands to rack up the delegates? Expatriates as a community have proved difficult to describe demographically; citizens are not required to tell the government where they are traveling or emigrating to, nor are they required to register with the consulate when they arrive. In 2004, the Census Bureau unsuccessfully attempted an expatriate census, which proved too expensive to execute.

Aspects of the demographics that are known seem to help both of the Democratic candidates. Hillary Clinton may be bolstered by the massive rise of American women overseas--a population that has grown by 16 times between 2001 and 2007. Barack Obama, who has fared particularly well among college students in the U.S., may benefit from the dramatic increase in students living abroad--220,000 in 2006, compared to 90,000 ten years before. Expatriates also seem drawn to Obama’s international experience. “Obama’s always been interested in what’s going on in the world outside of America,” says Ben Hart, a Beijing expat participating in the Global Primary. “We want someone who’s not from the side of the tracks ‘W.’ was on. … We know he’s got the worldview required.” 

To these expats, the Global Primary could not have come at a better time. As the U.S.'s reputation in the world reaches historical lows under the Bush administration, Americans abroad know first-hand the urgency of electing a president who will instantly change the U.S.’s image abroad. Suwannarat says that her experience over the past 38 years in “relatively friendly Thailand” led her to get more involved in the U.S. election: People in Thailand, she says, “no longer reassure me, whenever they tell me the terrible things my government is doing, that they still like Americans on a personal level.”

In another important sign of increasing interest, expatriates have been reaching into their wallets in record numbers. As a group, Americans abroad gave $908,000 toward the 2004 general election; they have given $1.4 million toward this year’s primary races alone. Figures provided by the Federal Election Commission last June show that the candidates had made more than 17 times what they had made by this same point in the campaign four years prior from foreign sources. By the end of 2007, Obama had raised more money abroad than Clinton--$462,340 to Clinton’s $435,000--and had collected nearly $150,000 from donors in China alone, the most in history to come from the country. Americans in China for Obama '08, a grassroots group of impassioned supporters, even attempted to take out an advertisement in an Iowa newspaper at the height of the caucuses. The Obama campaign halted them. “They weren’t sure that a message coming from supporters in China was good for the election then,” says Hart, an organizer for the group. “And we understood that.”

Officials from Democrats Abroad attribute the sharp rise in donations to the new voting system, which has galvanized expatriates with a new voice in the process. “The enthusiasm which the candidates have engendered at home is felt abroad as well,” Suwannarat says. Today, the country will learn which candidate will reap the most benefits. 

Adriane Quinlan is a writer based in Beijing.