Susan Rambow, an American expat from Delaware, cast her vote in the Democrats Abroad presidential primary in Berlin.Foto: Getty Images
On the first floor of Berlin's Max und Moritz pub, patrons nosh on gut-busting traditional German fare -- pork knuckles and cheese dumplings washed down with pints of beer -- as expatriate Democrat voters crowding the second floor cast their votes in the Democrats Abroad presidential primary for Americans living overseas.
Donald Black is serving as the evening's unofficial exit pollster. Wearing a pink shirt, he polls Americans exiting the voting booth as they descend the stairs.
"Did you vote?" he asks. On a white sheet, he places a check mark for each vote -- Hillary Clinton on the left and Barack Obama on the right. He's being showered in a blitz of camera flashes. At times, it seems there are more reporters on hand than voters, and it feels like every American move is being pursued by a reporter or the flash of a camera.
Giving Expatriates a Voice
Black says he's casting his vote for Obama, and the check marks on his unofficial list suggest that he represents the majority gathered in this venerable Berlin tavern. According to Black's back-of-the-envelope poll of Berlin's Democrats Abroad, Obama is running at 80 percent compared to 20 percent for Hillary Clinton.
At the top of the stairs, Cassie Thibodeau is forcing her way through the crowd into the polling station. Ballots are laid out on bistro tables lined with red balloons, and American flags are placed between mugs of beer and Alsatian tarte flambés, a kind of French pizza slathered in sour cream, onions and bacon.
After filling out their ballots, voters drop them into a box topped by a blue donkey. "Pull the string," says a ballot box attendant. The donkey kicks. "You've officially voted," she says. Thibodeau votes for Obama, who she describes as "new" and "fresh." Most importantly, though, "he's no typical politician."
Michael Steltzer, chairman of the Berlin chapter of Democrats Abroad, says he's pleased with voter turnout. Close to 20,000 Americans live in Berlin, he says (though official estimates put that figure at closer to 12,000), including about 1,000 registered Democrats. Around 250 voters turn up at Max und Moritz on Tuesday night, including 200 new members.
Officially a part of the national party, Democrats Abroad has been bestowed with 22 delegates to represent them at the Democratic National Convention in August, where either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will be crowned the party's official nominee for the presidency. This puts Democrats Abroad on par with smaller states like Montana or South Dakota -- save for the fact that each delegate gets only half a vote.
All around the world -- in Berlin, Kabul, Paris, London, Buenos Aires and even Jakarta, Indonesia -- Democrat voters turned out in cities with significant American expat populations on Tuesday night. According to Democrats Abroad, an estimated 6 million Americans living abroad are eligible to vote in US elections, although few actually exercise that right. Members who have registered with Democrats Abroad can vote between Feb. 5-12 at special precincts -- often cafés, cultural centers or even an Irish pub -- and, for the first time this year, via the Internet.
'McCain Has an Impeccable Track Record'
Across town, Republican expatriates gather at the Wahlkreis pub -- the name, appropriately, is German for "constituency" -- in Berlin's downtown Mitte district. An overflow crowd pack the small, politically themed bar to watch CNN's primary coverage on two jumbo screens.
While Democrats voted at Max und Moritz, the Republican gathering was merely symbolic -- the GOP doesn't allot delegates to party members abroad.
That's how it should be, says Eric Staal, chairman of the German chapter of Republicans Abroad. He prefers to cast his votes by absentee ballot in his home state of Virginia. "I would rather it count within the state I come from, because that's a natural part of the democratic process, as opposed to putting it in a separate basket," he says.
Staal, a 37-year-old business consultant based in Frankfurt, traveled to Berlin to watch the primary coverage with fellow Republicans and to celebrate what he hoped would be a night of victory for Republican frontrunner John McCain.
"Republicans abroad are very sensitive about foreign policy," Staal explains. "McCain has an impeccable track record in that area."
According to Staal, expats suffer more than Americans living in the US from the consequences of partisan bickering. "The polarization in the US has been tremendous with this Republican White House," he says. "The more polarized we are at home, the more damaging it is for our foreign policy."
Germany's Republicans Abroad chapter has 500 members, he says. Although the Wahlkreis party is its flagship gathering on Super Tuesday, it is often hard to find an American in the heavily German crowd.
Lukas Rohleder, a 26-year-old German university student living in Berlin, sports a "Mitt Romney for President" T-shirt and holds out hope that the former Massachusetts governor might stage a comeback. "I've been following the US election really closely, and I got involved with a young conservatives group at my university," he says.
It's 11 p.m. back at the Max und Moritz Democratic precinct. Nancy Green, the Democrats Abroad voting center manager in Berlin, and her helpers move to a back room, where they count the ballots before phoning the results in to the main Democrats Abroad office in Switzerland.
The results of the Democrats Abroad primary will first be released on Feb. 21. Until then, the only clue to the outcome is the tally sheet Michael Steltzer, the head of Berlin's expat Democrats, has just stuffed into his coat pocket.
At 3 a.m., there are still around 30 Democrats watching CNN as results are projected on a giant screen. When the news channel reports that Obama has apparently won the international Democratic primary in Jakarta, Indonesia, they begin cheering -- more because the station has just flashed the Democrats Abroad logo on the screen than because the Illinois senator has won.