The U.S. presidential election is nigh. Many American citizens living abroad are scrambling to get their absentee ballots and mail them on time. But is it worth the price of postage?
When I was assigned to write a short article about absentee voting for the October 2016 print edition of Metropole, I hesitated at first. My disillusionment with the American political system is only exceeded by my inured sense of futility as a voter – a feeling that has only increased since I’ve lived abroad. How could I possibly motivate anyone else to do their civic duty when I question the value of doing so myself?
A lifetime of stink
My first ballot was cast in the 1984 presidential race. As a progressive young student in Washington DC, I registered as a Democrat and idealistically supported Rev. Jesse Jackson in the party primary. That November, however, I held my nose and voted for “Fritz” Mondale, who ended up losing to incumbent Reagan in every state except Minnesota (Mondale’s home) and my home district. (To his credit, Mondale did succeed in getting the first woman nominated as a candidate for Vice President on a major party ticket, paving the way for this year’s historic event.)
Thanks to regional demographics and the vagaries of America’s antiquated Electoral College system, a presidential vote in DC, or one in my subsequent state of residence, New York, is statistically worthless. Both districts are nearly guaranteed to favor Democrats over Republicans. The Party primaries are the de facto election in such “deep-blue states” as well as in the “red states” owned by Republicans, like Texas and Tennessee. For your vote to really count, you must be registered in a swing state with a large number of Electors, such as Ohio, Virginia or Florida (so if you’re currently considering becoming an expat, consider moving to one of these places first).
Always choosing the lesser of two evils, I continued holding my nose at the voting booth in every subsequent presidential election through 2000, when Floridian electoral mismanagement resulted in the Supreme Court throwing the election to Bush the younger, despite the nationwide popular vote favoring Gore. The corrupt stench of American politics proved too much to bear, and I decided to get out of Dodge (this conveniently coincided with my engagement to a Wienerin). I moved here shortly before the crap really hit the fan on September 11, 2001, whence the country I knew was irrevocably changed.
Since then, I’ve dutifully cast my vote via absentee ballot in every election. But being abroad has hardly lessened the stink – it rather attenuated my vote even more as it increased the bureaucratic burden of voting.
Rules stacked against expats
Overseas citizens are eligible to vote in federal elections – that is, in congressional and presidential contests. Eligibility to vote in local races varies by state (the fvap.gov website provides details) and depends on different factors – whether one owns property or how long one lives abroad, to name a few. One must vote in the state where one resided prior to going abroad.
And even if one is already registered to vote, a separate absentee ballot must be requested every election cycle, even if you check the box indicating permanent residency abroad. So that’s two airmail stamps I have to pay for each vote I cast. Is it worth it? I’ll never understand why I must go through more red tape to vote than to buy a gun in America.
I’ll never understand why I must go through more red tape to vote than to buy a gun in America.
The U.S. Constitution prohibits American citizens born abroad from becoming President. Even worse, those who have never resided in the USA are not allowed to vote in 14 states(!), though they (like all expats) are required to pay federal taxes even if their income comes solely from foreign sources.
The expat-unfriendly U.S. policy against residence-based taxation, as well as those against privacy of overseas citizens’ foreign banking data (FATCA and FBAR), health insurance portability, social-security equalization, and citizenship rights for international same-sex couples are just some of the big reasons why more and more Americans living abroad are renouncing their citizenship, and why those who choose to remain citizens bother to vote. But let’s face it, such causes are not exactly top priority on any candidate’s policy platform. Hillary’s vague promise to “work to find the right solutions to FATCA” is almost as feeble as Donald’s silence on specific expat issues, though he’s promised to simplify and reduce taxation for “all” (read: the wealthiest 5%).
Don’t just vote, get involved!
If you want your expat voice heard, by all means you should vote (despite my own pessimism, I will certainly do so). But, more importantly, know that your power is not limited to the absentee ballot. Get involved through advocacy in both your adopted country and back home. Contribute your time (and money) to expat-friendly groups like Democrats Abroad, which advocates for our (mostly non-partisan) issues. (To my knowledge, the Republican Party supports no equivalent advocacy group).
By all means you should vote, but know that your power is not limited to the absentee ballot.
And don’t hesitate to use your voice to sway other voters, preferably those outside of your own like-minded social-media bubble. Consider volunteering for Democrats Abroad’s call-bank operations – they provide their members with a list of global expats to contact and lobby via their “call hub” VoIP system! Really gung-ho members can even attend their annual Global Convention in Washington, DC, where they lobby politicians directly. At a minimum, you can write letters to your Congressperson, as well as to local journals in your voting district.
There are few better ways to counter the influence of big money in politics than to be one of millions of grass roots small-money donors (ask Bernie Sanders). Even though you live abroad, you can still donate to a U.S. politician’s campaign. It’s easier if you still have a domestic bank account and can write a check, but any major credit card works just as well (unfortunately, contributions via wire transfer from a foreign bank account are generally not accepted).
Finally, remember this: each of us living abroad is an unofficial Ambassador for our native land. Use your influence on your adopted compatriots, who will in turn put democratic pressure on their own government’s foreign policy toward America.
After all: if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Stop grumbling, and do something about it! And don’t forget to register, request a ballot and vote!