Overseas Voters: A Virtual Swing State That Could Decide the Victor

As the U.S. presidential election reaches its final lap, Democratic and Republican volunteers scramble to mobilize overseas voters

  • Share
  • Read Later
Visar Kryeziu / AP

A U.S. Army soldier, member of the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, passes by a poster urging them to vote at Camp Bondsteel in Sojevo, Kosovo, on Nov. 2, 2012

The Democrats Abroad international headquarters in London may be just larger than a college dorm room, but it’s equipped with two crucial things: eager volunteers and plenty of pizza. On Nov. 1, the scent of two freshly delivered pies wafts over nine expats, hunched over tables, busily dialing U.S. citizens all over the world, from Brazil to France, making sure they know how to vote from abroad. “I’ve just spoken with a woman in Bordeaux,” announces one volunteer. “She says she has two kids living in Paris. That’s three votes!”

With the race so tight as the 2012 general election enters its final, white-knuckle stretch, the overseas vote could decide which of the presidential contenders goes away with the biggest slices of the pies that really matter. “It could affect who has the popular vote, who has the electoral-college vote and who is the President and Vice President of the United States,” says Robert Worcester, founder of the London-based polling organization MORI, now known as Ipsos MORI. There are 6.3 million American citizens living abroad who are qualified to vote, according to the U.S. State Department. Overseas voters certainly proved decisive in 2000, with Florida’s certified election results showing that Al Gore would have won the state — and thus the presidency — by 202 votes but for 2,490 overseas ballots counted after Election Day. Since 2006, overseas voters have tipped three close Senate elections, in Alaska, Virginia and Minnesota, to Democratic candidates, securing the party’s 51-member majority in the U.S. Senate. Such slim margins could occur again: if any key counties could be swayed by votes arriving from abroad, election results will be delayed until all overseas absentee ballots received by the Nov. 17 deadline are counted.

(MORE: 5 Countries Where the U.S. Election Matters Most)

And it’s hard to predict which way those ballots would go. Opinion polls regularly reinforce President Obama’s commanding lead over Mitt Romney among citizens of other countries. It’s harder to work out which way U.S. expats will jump. Despite the enduring notion that left-leaning Americans often emigrate to take up residence among like-minded liberals abroad, there’s little hard evidence to back the idea that the overseas vote skews to the left. Worcester points out that the opposite may be true since the military and business communities, which make up a large proportion of overseas voters, tend to lean right. Cynthia Dillon, executive director of Republicans Abroad, who is based in Washington, D.C., backs this view. “Democrats like to make a lot of noise, but I think there are more Republicans than there are Democrats, because Republicans work. And people forget about this, but they’re busy, so they can’t go out there and be always celebrating and having a party. So that’s the big difference,” she says. Israel in particular has a particularly large Republican contingent, says Dillon. “There are probably 75,000 to 80,000 Americans living in Israel,” she says, quoting an exit poll released by voter-outreach group iVoteIsrael on Nov. 1. “And 80% of the vote goes to Romney.”

Both Democrats and Republicans are working hard to capture whatever support they can find among overseas voters. Republicans Abroad U.K. — which rejoices in the acronym RAUK — holds monthly pub nights in London and has hosted a series of speakers such as former U.N. ambassador John Bolton and tax-policy reformer Grover Norquist to identify and build a network of overseas Republican supporters. “We used to team up with Democrats Abroad, and we would go to corporations or companies or buildings that had a lot of Americans, and we would set up and have the painstaking task of registering people to vote,” says Colleen Graffy, former chairperson of RAUK and director of global programs at the Pepperdine University School of Law. Since the government made it easy for expats to register and order ballots online, Republicans Abroad now targets efforts on an e-mail campaign encouraging U.S. citizens to vote. “We basically try and cast a wide net for all Americans, but we probably capture Republicans specifically,” says Graffy.

(MORE: The 2012 U.S. Presidential Election Year in Pictures)

Republicans Abroad supports the Republican Party but is not an affiliate. Its blue counterpart, Democrats Abroad, is an official arm of the Democratic Party and has been represented at the Democratic National Convention since 1976 as a virtual “state,” with 20 delegate votes. At its London headquarters, the only working Democratic field office outside the territorial U.S., two American volunteers report that they have found ways to track down left-leaning Americans in London. Registration drives in magnets for liberals like the health-food chain Whole Foods Market tend to yield a 3:1 ratio in favor of Democrats, says Todd, who hails from Texas and is employed by an overseas aid charity in London. (Volunteers give only their first names to maintain privacy.) He jokes with fellow volunteer David, who works in publishing, about the possibility of profiling Democrats by what they’re buying: “I suppose we could avoid the ones loading up on red meat.”

By the Thursday before the election, it’s crunch time. Ballot-request deadlines have already passed for Colorado, Nevada and Virginia. A handful of states, including Florida and Ohio, are still in play, however, and the volunteers are desperate to make sure each eligible American voter living abroad requests their ballot and gets it postmarked in time. At 9:30 p.m., when the office is meant to close, several volunteers remain at their desks, making last-ditch efforts to round up the half-dozen registered Democrats in São Paolo and making arrangements about when they’ll start in the morning. One volunteer offers to go in early the next morning. “She’s swaying the entire state of Ohio,” says Todd. He might just be right.