New Flophouse Address:

You will find all the posts, comments, and reading lists (old and some new ones I just published) here:

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Perceptions of an Overseas Voter

To understand why the United States is trying so hard to chase down overseas Americans for taxes one need only look at this graph prepared by Senator Jeff Sessions' staff and reprinted in the Weekly Standard.

Rather frightening, isn't it?  Yes, America’s per capita government debt is worse than Greece.  This means while all of the countries on the chart are desperate for revenue the U.S. leads the pack.

The political process is the means by which such problems are faced and managed.  Or not, as the case may be.  Living outside the U.S. I'm at a disadvantage here when it comes to homeland politics since I am only getting an echo of the political debates going on right now over what to do about the American national debt.  To those who argue that I could be perfectly well-informed if I would just regularly read the American newspapers, I would counter that it is not nearly enough.  I read these articles in a vacuum.   If I were living in the U.S. I imagine that this topic would be something I would discuss with friends, family and colleagues who would give me their points of view and share resources where we could all get more information.  I'd be reading the daily local paper to know what my Senators and Representatives were up to.  I'd be listening to the radio on the ride into work.  I'd have a much better idea how my fellow Americans feel about what is going on around them and how it impacts them because I'd be swimming in the same waters.   Since I don't have any of that here, I read the articles in the American media almost as if I were a foreigner.  It really does seem that distant.

But here's the thing.  I vote.  The very efficient folks at King County Election will be sending a ballot this year to my address in France.  I even have a voter registration card that I received a few days ago with my French address and U.S. contact information if I have any questions or a problem (partially written in Kanji by the way).  And though King County seems to be in the know, I was a bit surprised to realize that neither of my senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell seem to be aware of their constituents from the Pacific Northwest who are living outside the U.S. (yes, they exist and I've met some of them in both Japan and France).  When I go to the "Contact me" section of their sites, the only overseas constituents they seem to recognize are American military personnel abroad.  I suppose I could pretend I still live in the state of Washington but that seems dishonest.  Quite a conundrum, isn't it?  I did sign up for both their newsletters and was quite amused that Patty Murray's form asked for an address but had no provision (unless I was military) for a foreign address.  I finally just put in my French address and selected "Washington State."  We'll see if her staff notices.

And yet, Washington state is, according to the book Leaving America, an important overseas voter state  (along with Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio) with over 200,000 overseas voters in each of those states registered to vote locally.  In a close election, politicians in these states could quite conceivably win or lose based on how overseas Americans decide to vote in 2012.  And, to be quite frank with you, with the MOVE act which makes it much easier for overseas citizens to vote, the range of issues on the table today that have got us a bit riled up (citizenship-based taxation, FATCA and the like) and the existence of non-profit organizations like the Overseas Vote Foundation which has an on-line platform that makes it very easy for us to register, it's quite likely that more and more of us will choose to exercise our right to vote in the U.S. in 2012.  This means that homeland voters and politicians in some states might just get a nasty surprise in November.

My purpose here is not to threaten people or our elected representatives in the homeland.  Rather what I would like to propose is a deal that would make this situation work a little better to everyone's benefit.  On my side I am painfully aware that I am not as aware of homeland issues as I could be and I promise to make a special effort during the ramp-up to the 2012 election to get as much information as I can to be able to vote responsibly.  On the homeland side what I would like to see are people and politicians meeting us halfway.  A good start would be to stop vilifying overseas Americans in the media.  Every article or comment we read that labels us "disloyal" and "tax evaders," for example, just makes us paranoid and turns us into single-issue voters (just vote against anyone who supports FATCA :-).  A second step would be an acknowledgement that we exist and it might be worth everyone's time to improve the dialogue with the 6 million Americans (civilians) outside the U.S.  We are the "domestic abroad" and maybe we have something to bring to the debates going on inside the U.S. if people would suspend judgement and just listen for a moment or two.

The United States is facing some serious challenges right now.  Going back to the graph at the beginning of this post, this is a very serious situation.  It is not unreasonable, in my view, that all Americans be part of the solution.  To be very clear (and here I diverge from the views of some other overseas Americans) I am not even against the idea of contributing financially to the resolution of homeland problems.

But, if that is what the homeland is asking of me, then I need to feel that I am a part of the nation regardless of where I live - that I have, not just a vote and representation, but effective representation, where my views and my interests are taken into account.  And I will be honest with you, I don't feel that at all.  This really is THE issue for me.  It's not taxes.  Taxes are the price of civilization.  But if you want me to support American civilization (the nation) then I need you to acknowledge that I and 6 million other people are still a part of it.

If this isn't possible, if no one wants to go to the effort, if all homeland Americans want to do is punish all 6 million of us for the "sin" of living abroad by double-taxing us to extinction while making it difficult for us to have a voice, then our U.S. citizenship is worth very little.  If you add to that a certain rejection on the part of the nation then, rationally, this is a citizen/state relationship which does neither of us any good.  You don't need us yelling at you from across the oceans, surprising you when we actually dare vote and tip local elections, and hurting U.S. interests in our host countries.  On our side we don't need you pretending we don't exist and yet passing laws that impact us behind our backs and then ignoring us completely when we protest. 

So what will it be, folks?  Do we try to work this out or do we give up on the basis of "irreconciliable differences" and negotiate an amicable divorce on terms we can all live with?


Eric said...

Sometimes political groups float the idea of trying to convince a large number of their supporters to move to one not-very-populated state in order to swing the local elections and get lots of their preferred candidates into state and even national political offices. E.g. libertarians have the Free State Project. I remember reading both gay marriage proponents and opponents discussing similar ideas. Maybe we should all find a state with extremely lax residency laws and "move" there.

My real trouble is keeping informed in the first place. In HK I can keep up with politics without turning it into a full-time job: read the paper before breakfast, skim the LegCo bills and the court lists once a week to see if anything egregious is going on. If I wanted to keep up with Bay Area politics or even state-wide politics it would be an analogous level of effort. But so much of the stuff that affects us as American expats is at a federal level, where there's way too much going on and too many crazy riders tagged onto the ends of bills at the last minute.

Just Me said...

Good post. Hope you share it over at Isaac Brock too. There are getting to be more and more new readers who would benefit from this. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

BTW, I like to think I stay pretty well informed about what is going on back in the States. But then, I am a news junkie. My wife streams KUOW all the time for Seattle news, and I have my cross section of NRP, PRI, BBC and ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp) podcast programs I listen to, plus PBS newshour is a regular. My MP3 player and ear buds are always in when I am out in the garden, or working on the house. I like to think that I listen to enough cross section of stories and opinion to understand the issues. Although, I must admit, Rush Limbaugh is not a podcast I download!

I have a couple very right wing conservative T-party Real American acquaintances that send me all the right wing chain emails that I have fun debunking, and I do have long debates on issues, but generally it is a waste of my time. My wife asks why do I bother, and I say because it hones my skills and is entertaining. However, when going up against folks with certainty and true believers, you should have no illusions that anything you say to counter their perceptions of truth will ever matter. They are into broad characterizations and not interested in a view from another room. But I stay in touch so I don't get caught in a bubble of my own making.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Eric - Now that would be one hell of an idea. Let's just pick a state that needs voters and ask if we can all be residents there for voting purposes.

@Just Me - You bet, I'll cross post over at Isaac Brock.

Staying informed even in an Internet age is harder then it looks. I'm with Eric, it takes time and if you have a full-time job it's not easy to explain to your French employer why you are reading the New York Times instead of doing productive work. :-) Podcast are a good idea, Marvin, and one I hadn't thought of.

I think Eric is right though that many expat issues are of little or no interest to local people and arise because of legislation that gets bundled into other legislation and passed without anyone thinking for one minute how this might effect 6 million citizens abroad. Because either we don't exist (it's not true that there are that many American abroad!) or we are "temporary."

On my side I woke up the other day to the fact that I was merely glancing over issues like Social Security or the health care debate. Why? Well, I don't qualify for either of those things and I won't be seeing any benefit from them so why should care if the Republicans kill them?

That was not well done of me. So I'm going to try to do better, try to have more empathy for homelanders and their issues provided that I see some reciprocity. If I don't see that and I continue to read misleading and downright obnoxious characterizations of Americans abroad then I will simply vote my very narrow interests and that means the most anti-tax, anti-government, Far Right lunatics I can find on the ballot who are against FATCA and citizenship-based taxation. :-)

jay dee said...

For Eric and Victoria: Federal law specifies where an overseas may register to vote. It's not a pick-and-choose beauty contest.

As noted in the article, the websites of members of Congress have never (in my experience) offered their overseas constituents a way of submitting both their overseas AND voting addresses on the same form. Phone numbers are rejected unless the conform to the US pattern.

One suggestion I have made in recent years is that for Overseas Americans Week, the door-knockers should put at or near the top of their list the idea of redesigning their websites to enable overseas citizens to get recognition more easily from Representatives and Senators. At the very least, members of the Americans Abroad caucus should do so.

Any U.S. citizen being solicited for campaign donations to a member of Congress (or the Executive!) running for re-election should insist, before giving a dime that their website reflects their international constituency. At a re-election fund-raiser earlier this year, I raised this question with a senator's staffers, but to my knowledge nothing has budged on the incumbent's website. Sad. Pass the hat to overseas constituents, and then ignore them on your website.

To Just Me: How do you get PBS Newshour? I've tried to, very unsuccessfully, on the Web. Maybe I'm not tech-savvy enough….

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@jay dee - that is a very good suggest. It's very chilling to arrive at these sites and realize that they don't recognize the civilian constituents abroad. I left with a very poor impression of both "my" senators.

I went looking for more stats about overseas voters and came up with this resource which is just amazing. It's called the United States Elections Project and it gives eligible overseas voter information by state. Really well done. It appears that Washington has fewer than 200,000 but nonetheless it is in good company with lots of other states with well over 100,000 and some with nearly half a million (400-500,000)

Ellen Lebelle said...

Your post has been linked to the AARO facebook page.
I have taken it a step further and sent the link to the blogpost to my senator and congressman. (I say my senator, because I just can't bring myself to write to the other guy.)
I'm sure the AARO link will bring you more readers, not so sure about the congress people.

Just Me said...

@jay dee said...

Here is where I go to watch PBS Newshour nightly. You can not stream the Full broadcast, as that is restricted to the US, but you can watch each of the individual segments.

@Victoria... Understand the time issues with keeping up with US news, and that is why years ago, I started the podcast route. If a program doesn't have a podcast (but most I want to listen to do now), I stream the program, record it, and make my own podcast out of it.

I listen to a lot of varied things, like NPRs All Things Considered, or Morning Edition, PRIs the World, Car talk, This American life, RadioLab, Freshair, Left,Right &Center, Talk of the Nation, etc, etc, etc....

If time is limited, and I want comprehensive discussion on subjects from all sides with civility and out over talk and bluster, than KCRWs "To the Point" with Warren Olney is the very best anywhere in the media universe. I highly recommend it. He is the best moderator going, bar none

Here is the link...

I download every show to listen to later. After years of listening, I am still uncertain of his politics, and that is just the way it should be!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thank you very much, Ellen. I think you're right about the Congress folks. Oh what a cold shower that was to go check out those websites....

Pat L said...


I have just discovered your FlopHouse through AARO. It is most interesting. I haven't read everything yet, but just this page is great.

CEJ said...

I think you underestimate the difficulties of people both registering and requesting their absentee ballots--and then the third hurdle of getting it filled in and mailed on time.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Charles,

You are correct. I posted this piece over at Isaac Brock and heard some amazing tales of bureaucracy and other impediments to voting. The Overseas Vote Foundation says that it should be easier this year with the new rules but....

I gave it a try this year and was pleasantly surprised but that was just one state and one set of local election officials. Can't speak to the other 49.

What was your experience?