Will the Expat Vote Matter in 2016?

If the election is tight, record-high overseas balloting might make a difference.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21:  The 'Stop Trump' campaign bus travels around Parliament Square, urging American expats across the UK to register and vote in the US election in November, on September 21, 2016 in London, England. Millions of Americans live abroad (over 220,000 in the UK), but only 12% of them vote, and the deadline to register is fast approaching in some US states.  (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21: The 'Stop Trump' campaign bus travels around Parliament Square, urging American expats across the UK to register and vote in the US election in November, on September 21, 2016 in London, England. Millions of Americans live abroad (over 220,000 in the UK), but only 12% of them vote, and the deadline to register is fast approaching in some US states. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

From Mexico to China, U.S. expatriates have often been thrust into an uneasy role this year, forced to explain the 2016 presidential race back home to bewildered friends, neighbors, and even strangers abroad. But if Tuesday’s election between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump is as tight as recent polls have shown, American expats may swoop in to have a determining say in the results.

Election experts predicted American expats could cast as many as 1 million ballots this year, potentially marking a record high for overseas U.S. voter participation. The previous peak was set in 2008, when 682,341 U.S. civilians living overseas and members of the uniformed services mailed in their votes.

“Get Out the Vote” operations run by U.S. consulates, political groups, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have kicked into high gear around the world, spurred by Americans who keenly feel the election’s outcome will impact the U.S. image abroad. In the United Kingdom, where more than 300,000 people are estimated eligible to vote, “Stop Trump” campaigners even hopped aboard a double-decker bus armed with iPads for those who wanted to register online and request a ballot on the spot.

“People are revved up about this election. I think that that is understandable because of the specific nature of the candidates,” Lucy Stensland Laederich, the vice president of communications for the Association of Americans Resident Overseas, told Foreign Policy.

She said American expats appear most concerned about trade, immigration, and global financial issues: “Overseas voters, both Democrats and Republicans, feel there are high stakes in this election.”

By law, expats are registered to vote with the address of their last U.S. residence, meaning their ballots are sprinkled throughout the country instead of being counted as a single bloc. Even so, Americans living overseas could end up tipping the balance in key swing states, like Florida, if the race is tight. In 2008 and 2012, California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Washington each received more than 50,000 ballots from overseas and the military, accounting for almost half of the total overseas vote.

There is precedence: Votes from American living abroad or deployed with the military were credited with making the difference most famously in the razor-thin 2000 presidential race in electing Republican President George W. Bush. The expat vote also figured in Democrat Jim Webb’s narrow Senate win in 2006 in Virginia and Democrat Al Franken’s 2008 Senate victory in Minnesota, where he prevailed by only 312 votes.

Predicting the number of votes that might come from overseas Americans is a murky science. If internet traffic is any indicator, interest in voting is at a peak: People are talking about this election online more than any in history, and the U.S. Vote Foundation, one of the main ways overseas voters generate forms to register and request ballots, had 2.6 million visits this year on two voting portals the group maintains.

“This election is just incredibly interesting to people around the world, and people see it affecting them as much as it affects the United States,” Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, the president of U.S. Vote Foundation, told FP. “Because of that, more people are participating from overseas.”

But there’s no telling how big that pool of people could be, even if this season of bitter rivalry and high-drama plot twists indeed convinces more Americans abroad to mail in a ballot.

An estimated 975,000 members of the military are eligible to vote on an overseas ballot, even if they are stationed in the United States. However, because the United States does not issue exit visas or monitor citizens traveling outside the country, estimates of other eligible voters abroad are inexact and vary widely — from 2.6 million to more than 8 million.

But there’s good reason to bet on a strong overseas vote. One rough indicator of potential participation is the number of voters abroad who have registered and requested ballots. Exact numbers of how many expats have requested ballots this year are not immediately available as there is no single distribution point; voters can get ballots from local election offices, U.S. consulates, the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), NGOs, and, for military personnel, the Defense Department.

But one source offers an encouraging picture. The U.S. Vote Foundation, which was founded in 2005 and licenses its software to many different organizations, has seen a 400 percent increase in ballot requests on thier system since 2012, said Dzieduszycka-Suinat.

And as of last Friday, FVAP had fielded 384,180 ballot request form downloads this year.

Rising voter participation may in part be due to new policies and technology making it easier to vote from abroad than ever before. Expats were first granted the right to vote by absentee ballot in 1975, but many still failed to cast a ballot for years, citing scant time, confusing procedures, missed deadlines, or even disinterest.

More recently, new laws to ease voter participation have made it simpler for Americans living anywhere to cast a ballot. It’s now possible to register and request a ballot online, and some states even accept scanned emailed ballots. As of 2010, states are required to send out ballots no later than 45 days before Election Day to ensure expats receive theirs with enough time to vote. And a few states, like Colorado and North Carolina, will still count a ballot more than a week after Election Day, so long as it is postmarked by Nov. 8.

It’s anyone’s guess whether Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump would benefit more from high expat participation.

Military members, who traditionally lean Republican, slightly outvoted civilian expats in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, according to the Election Assistance Commission. But if more civilians turn out this year, it might benefit Democrats. In the 2014 congressional midterm elections, 78 percent of registered nonmilitary voters overseas had a bachelor’s degree or more — what could be a strong indicator of support for Clinton this year.

“I’m not afraid there will be a swell of Republican votes coming from anywhere,” said Katie Solon, the international chair of Democrats Abroad. “I’m sure we are a blue state overseas.”

Solon predicted expat civilian Democrats will make a strong showing in Colorado, North Carolina, and Florida based on their outreach — all important states for Clinton.

Established 52 years ago as an arm of the Democratic Party, Democrats Abroad is well-organized — it has about 140,000 members scattered throughout the world and sent delegates to the national convention in Philadelphia in July. Encouragingly, Solon said there was a 50 percent increase in overseas turnout during the Democratic primary last spring — for a total 34,570 voters from more than 170 countries — when compared with 2008. “We were the only Democratic primary delegation to outdo our 2008 numbers,” she said.

The group boasts institutional support, motivated volunteers, and a sophisticated “Get Out the Vote” digital operation, as well as traditional phone banking. Republicans have no similar official organization. An independent group, Republicans Abroad, closed in 2013. A new group, Republicans Overseas, took its place but is smaller in scope than Democrats Abroad. Organizers did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s a strategy gap the GOP may want to reconsider — especially if Tuesday’s results go sideways for Republicans all the way down the ballot. Every vote counts, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said, even when they’re cast from overseas.

Photo credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

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