Getting In the Vote Americans Abroad Rushing to Fill Out Ballots

In countries outside the US, teams of volunteers and organizers are working long hours to make sure Americans living abroad can vote if they want to. The traditionally low number of overseas voters may skyrocket this year.

By Ira Porter in Berlin


Don't vote for that guy.
REUTERS

Don't vote for that guy.

It can be easy to let civic duty slide from overseas, but with passions running higher than usual in 2008, volunteers who register American voters abroad say the presidential-election buzz is palpable. They've seen a swell of requests for absentee ballots.

There are no reliable statistics for the number of expatriated Americans hoping to participate in this November's election. An estimated 5 to 7 million Americans live abroad, including military personnel, and that number always dwarfs the number of citizens who manage to send in a ballot. But observers have noticed a change in sentiment.

Jody Couser, a spokeswoman for the registration group Democrats Abroad, said, "We don't have exact statistics, but I can tell you we're signing up thousands of people every week."

And people who would normally not bother to vote were turning up for registration drives in Germany.

"If John McCain wins I'm not going back to the states," Berlin resident Sofia Holder said. She's a 24-year-old transplant from Houston, Texas, an aspiring photographer who says she's fed up with American politics.

Holder is one of many expatriates who have flocked to voter registration tables around the German capital set up to serve Americans who have rediscovered an urge to vote. "I've been meaning to do this for months now," said Peter Duvigneau, 34, a German-American from Washington, DC. "It seemed so complicated." He sat with his wife at St. Georges Bookshop in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood recently to fill out forms during a voter-registration drive. St. Georges is a focal point for expatriates in Berlin, since it sells books in English.

"If I didn't vote in this election I think it would bother me," Duvigneau said. "I want to feel like I participated."

The registration drive at St. Georges was one of a month-long series of events around Berlin -- many hosted by Democrats Abroad -- aimed at recruiting Democratic voters. Not to be outdone, their counterpart group Republicans Abroad is hosting seminars and drives in Berlin and other places in support of their candidate.

"I feel John McCain is the better candidate because he has made sound efforts to prove he’s capable of leading the country," said Jim McDonough, a 25-year-old graduate student and business English instructor from Minnesota who has lived in Berlin for two years. "Obama’s adjectives of hope and change to describe the future of America just haven’t convinced me."

But not all groups looking to register US voters abroad are partisan. Some just see the importance of getting everyone involved, no matter what their party. Marina Mecl, voter outreach director for the Overseas Vote Foundation, says her non-profit boasts members and volunteers who are not only Democrats or Republicans but also independents or members of the Green Party. They organize voter registration drives, but they also supply a wealth of information on their Web site about candidates for the White House and every available seat in Congress.

"Overseas Vote will definitely make a difference in this election and we are concentrating on setting up the best system for people," said Mecl.

The Overseas Vote Foundation cooperates with study-abroad programs, and has support from Americans living as far away as India. Germany, where Mecl is based, ranks second to the United Kingdom in terms of traffic on their Web site from curious potential voters. Traffic from German cities alone in August showed the most interest in Berlin, followed by Munich, Meinz and Frankfurt.

Mecl wouldn't say who she wants or thinks is going to win the presidency, but she did see a rush of younger people -- aged 29 and below -- using the Web site's tool to help them register to vote from abroad. That age group represents 34 percent of all new voters signing up, Mecl said, which is the largest block this year. In 2004 they represented 19 percent.

"It's been exciting. They've go so much energy. They have this feeling that 'We have some power with what's going on in the States,'" Mecl said. "They feel their strength. I just hope they are not disappointed."

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