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Monday, July 9, 2012

Why Americans Abroad Should Vote

A few days ago I tried to make a contribution to a political campaign in the U.S. and was stymied by their on-line software that didn't like my foreign address and wouldn't take my home phone number (French format  + 33 1...).  If this had happened a few years ago I probably would have given up in disgust but this time around I decided I wasn't going to let it go.  So I wrote them an email and I explained that I was one of millions of Americans abroad and gently proposed that they look at their software and make it more expat-friendly.  In the meantime I asked for a workaround so that I could send them money and participate in the American political process just like Americans in the homeland.

To their credit they got right back to me and started working on a fix.  But one email from a staff member set me back on my heels.  He thanked me for my support but said that in his travels he had met communities of Americans abroad and his experience was that none of them ever showed any interest in voting in the U.S. much less in making a contribution to a campaign.

Let's be honest and admit that there is some truth to what he said.  The reasons vary but, yes, out of the estimated 6-7 millions Americans abroad only a small percentage ever cast votes.  The Overseas Vote Foundation has this excellent report from 2010 which attempted to analyze the number of Americans abroad who are eligible to vote and how many actually succeeded in the 2008 election.  Their conclusion?
If voter turnout is defined as the number of people who attempted to vote (total ballots submitted for counting or 273,408) divided by the total population (approximately 4 million), approximately 6.8 percent of the overseas civilian population attempted to participate and were successful in doing so.
That's pathetic. But does this indicate a lack of interest or outright disenfranchisement?  Both.  Once an expatriate has been abroad for 10, 15, 20 years he/she may no longer be particularly well-informed about local politics (remember that Americans abroad vote from the U.S. state where they last resided regardless of how many years they've been abroad).  Then there is the matter of the rather byzantine procedures that U.S. states had for overseas voters that made registering and casting a ballot in the U.S. from abroad complex and rather painful.  Interest wanes when confronted with a process that is not terribly friendly and hard to understand.  To add insult to injury, many of those who did navigate the process in 2008 saw their ballots rejected.  And finally, there is one group of Americans citizens abroad who actually are unable to vote at all in many cases in the U.S.:  American citizens born abroad and living abroad.  That's right, not all U.S. states allow them to vote at all even though these U.S. citizens are required to pay U.S. taxes and could be liable for a military draft.  Homelanders can bluster all they want about getting Americans abroad to "pay their faire share in taxes," but this is flat-out taxation without any representation and I fail to see on what planet this constitutes "fair."  

All this is very disheartening but there are some blue skies on the horizon and, I think, some very good reasons for Americans abroad to vote in 2012.  Here are my responses to some of the rationales I've heard from my compatriots abroad for not voting in U.S. elections.  If you have a problem with my reasoning, please feel free to disagree.  This is a topic worth debating.

They'll find me:  Many Americans abroad are struggling with the compliance dilemma.  As people become aware of the U.S. tax and reporting requirements, and realize that they are potentially in a lot of trouble, they are afraid to vote because they think that by doing so this will give the U.S. government (the IRS) a heads-up.  My .02 on this is that, with FATCA coming on-line in 2013, they will find you in any case with the help of your host country.  I suppose it is possible to do a deep-dive: close your bank accounts, transfer your money to a spouse, live on cash, give up your career/business and hide in a rural area, let your U.S. passport lapse and avoid the local U.S. Embassy as if it were plague-infested territory and so on.  Some people will undoubtedly go that route but, personally, I don't find any of that to be terribly congenial.  I respectfully suggest that the time for sticking our heads in the sand and hoping we will be left alone has come and gone, my friends. So instead of limiting our options, let's expand them by registering to vote, casting our ballots and raising an unholy stink if the states try to disenfranchise us.

Local politicians in the U.S. don't care about my overseas vote:  Maybe we need to start giving them a reason to care.  Look, if we have any hope of getting some of this nonsense corrected, we must start flexing our muscles and showing the homelanders that not only do we care, but we will vote and punish local politicians that don't take our interests into account.  The staff of the political campaign I mentioned in a previous paragraph is now aware that there is a strange middle-aged American lady in Versailles, France who is not only registered to vote (and wants to vote for their candidate) but cares enough to throw some cash their way.  If enough of us do this, we can raise awareness and get our issues on the agenda. Local politicians in the U.S. may not understand why so many of us live abroad but they do understand two basic things:  dollars and votes (in that order).  If we can start speaking their language, perhaps we will finally get some traction for the things we care about.

My vote won't count because there are too few of us voting from abroad:  Yes, the system is stacked against us in some ways since we have to vote in the last state we resided in and some say we lack effective representation.  But instead of moaning about how ridiculous this is, let's look at the opportunities inherent in this rather perverse situation.  Many elections these days in the U.S. are decided by an incredibly small margin.  Have a look at this video produced by Democrats Abroad:

In all these races just a few votes made the difference.  This means that even a small number of votes from abroad could have some serious consequences for the U.S. political scene in 2012.  And think how much fun it would be if in 2012 the expat vote turned a few key races in the U.S. around and made some of those U.S. politicians that have been maligning us from their cushy Washington offices into very unhappy ex-senators and representatives.   

I've tried to vote in the past from abroad and it's just too darn complicated:  Meet the 2009 MOVE Act (Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act).  It is now much easier to vote from abroad.  How easy?  Well, I tested it using this fine on-line overseas voter registration tool provided by the Overseas Vote Foundation and it was a no-brainer.  Took me less than 15 minutes and a trip to my local post office.  I was rewarded just a few weeks later when I received my official voter registration card from King County Elections in Renton, Washington, USA.  Since then I have also received follow-up material asking me, among other things, if I would prefer to vote on-line or via mail (paper absentee ballot) from the comfort of my home here in Versailles, France.  Not too shabby.  So give it a shot and, if you are so inclined, think about making a contribution to the Overseas Vote Foundation.  This is a non-partisan foundation that is devoted to one thing - making it possible for Americans abroad to vote in U.S. elections.  They are good folks and deserve support for their efforts.

Last comment and this is a tough one that I've struggled with for years.  Given that we do not live in the U.S. and many of us haven't darkened the doors of our supposed "states of residence" for years, is it moral for us to cast votes in local elections.  After all, for the most part, we are not subject to the consequences of that vote.  Obamacare could be overturned tomorrow, U.S. Social Security could be privatized in a few years, Federal money flowing to the states could be cut off or reduced, and the impact on me personally would be zero.  I derive no benefits from any of the above though I do have family stateside that does depend on these things.  

After a lot of reflection, this is my answer:  If the United States of America is going to exert its sovereignty over us by requiring us to pay taxes and file reams of paperwork from abroad in order to comply with a byzantine tax code and onerous reporting requirements voted into law by those local politicians then, yes, Americans abroad have every right to vote in U.S. elections. Granted, our interests may diverge substantially from homelanders' interests but that fundamentally changes nothing.

We are U.S. citizens and if we are going to held to the responsibilities of that citizenship then we have the legal and moral right to get into the political game and vote for things we care about and for politicians who will advance our interests which are just as valid and important as any homelander's interests even if we haven't set one foot in the U.S. in the last 40 years.  End of story. 


Anonymous said...


I entirely agree. I have just registered on Overseas Vote Foundation and sent in my ballot request. I had the experience of my 2008 ballot not being counted and I certainly do not want this to happen again.

Thanks for bringing up this subject,and bon courage with your chimio.

Pat L

Tim said...

One thing to remember is not all people affected by FATCA "consider" themselves to be American citizens. These in fact tend to be the most "militant" and the most problematic for the US to deal with. While I believe France will cooperate with FATCA I am not sure Canada will and that is where things get awfully interesting. I do believe though not cooperating with FATCA could cause massive systemic risk for both Canada and the US and quite possibly "crash" the global financial system.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Pat, Hi and thanks so much for your comment. It should go much better this year with the MOVE act. I was just floored when I started getting regular mail from King County Elections. Looks like they are serious about it this time and we will get our chance. All to the good. And thanks so much for your best wishes. The chemo is what it is but today is a good day and I might even have enough energy to tie up my roses and pull a few weeds.

@Tim, You are absolutely right and these folks should probably not vote lest they try to fight their involuntary citizenship and have the US gov turn around and say that since they exercised one of the rights of citizenship they have o ground to stand on. Same goes for anyone in the process of renouncing/relinquishing. But for anyone else still on the fence or stubbornly holding on to that US passport, I think the time has come to act. And I agree that there is a huge international incident on the horizon if the US absolutely insists on holding Accidental Americans to the U.S. tax and reporting requirements. I can just see the headlines in Le Monde and the really righteous anger of the French public if this happened.