US expats ‘could hold key to presidential vote’

The estimated eight million American expatriates could hold the key to the outcome of November's US presidential election, even though little more than a tenth of them usually bother to vote, according to a paper produced by the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University.

US election
Jay Sexton, director of the institute, and Patrick Andelic, research associate, argue in their report, America's Overseas Voters: How They Could Decide the US Presidency in 2016, that expatriate voters "are an often overlooked constituency that have been critical to US elections in the past and, if mobilised, could be even more significant in future".But with average expat turnout at 12 per cent in presidential elections, the report says that both Democrats Abroad and Republicans Overseas have a challenge on their hands to mobilise the overseas vote."Taken as a single entity, expatriate US citizens constitute the thirteenth most populous US state. Yet overseas voters exercise far less political power than they potentially could, given their numbers," say the authors."The strikingly low turnout among expatriates may reflect an assumption that their votes are unlikely to have a significant impact. However, expatriate voters have played a decisive role in the outcomes of past elections."Perhaps the most famous example of this was in 2000, when delayed overseas ballots gave George W. Bush a narrow 537-vote lead when the Florida recount was stopped by the Supreme Court. Had the election been decided based on the ballots that had arrived by the November 26 deadline, Al Gore would have won the state of Florida, and the presidential election, by 202 votes."All adult American expats have been entitled to absentee ballots in federal elections since 1975. Even so, there is no reliable estimate of actually how many are abroad. Eight million is the generally accepted 'ballpark' figure, plus another two million military and federal employees.The authors say that both Democrats Abroad and Republicans Overseas share the goal of increasing turnout among expatriate voters. However, the report says that Democrats Abroad is far better integrated into the national party and, as a result, "has clear advantages over its counterpart, not least in the voting opportunities it gives its members and the enthusiasm it can generate".It adds, "Founded in 1964, Democrats Abroad has been formally recognised as a 'state' by the Democratic Party for the purposes of the presidential primary since 1976. This means that Democrats Abroad is entitled to send a total of 21 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, a delegation of comparable size to those of Wyoming and Maine."Since 2008, in order to determine the apportionment of those delegates, Democrats Abroad has held a 'Global Presidential Primary' as part of Super Tuesday. As well as being able to vote by post, fax, and e-mail, expatriate Democrats can cast ballots at designated Voting Centres (this year, Oxford's Rothermere American Institute served as one of those Voting Centres for the second time)."The results, released this week, showed a decisive win for Bernie Sanders, 69 per cent to Clinton's 31 per cent, the highest percentage that Sanders has received in any state except his own, Vermont."Sanders' victory confirms that overseas Democrats are more liberal cohort than those in the US (Obama won a similarly lopsided victory in the DA primary in 2008), but are also hardly surprising given the concerted effort that the Sanders campaign made to appeal to overseas voters."Sanders himself made a video pitching for overseas voters and personally participated in DA's first 'Global Town Hall,' a video conference with representatives of the Clinton campaign broadcast to voters all over the world. The candidate's brother – Larry Sanders, a former Green councillor who lives in Oxford – has also ventured out on the stump. Expatriate voters, it seems, are as responsive to the attentions of candidates as voters anywhere."The paper says that by contrast, Republicans Overseas has no formal institutional relationship with the national Republican Party. In a bid to address this organisational gap, a group of conservative American expats in the UK created a new Political Action Committee in March with the aim of registering Republican voters abroad and promoting the party ideology."Democrats Abroad and Republicans Overseas remain vibrant and ambitious organisations, determined to find new and creative ways to represent the interests of party members and the wider expatriate community," say the authors."The extraordinarily low turnout rate among American expatriates indicates that they still have some way to go before this community begins to approach its full potential as a voting bloc."Nonetheless, the rise of the overseas voter, and the growing awareness that a democracy's electorate may no longer be bound by national borders, has the potential to reshape our understanding of not only political parties but the nation state itself."

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