The Absent Voter

Encouraging Americans living abroad to vote is an important issue at election time. Photo: CDC, flickrFor U.S. citizens of the electorate living abroad, election season can feel strangely alienating. Americans living in Sweden will not be “going to the polls”, instead participation in active citizenship will come via the Post, in the form of an absentee ballot. For these absentee voters, feeling disconnected is relative to the weight of the events occurring back home – whether it is your hometown’s baseball team winning the World Series with no one to share your joy, or an intense presidential race.

Absentee voters living abroad are eligible to cast their vote under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), which was passed in 1986. Those covered under the Act are U.S. citizens living abroad or traveling abroad during election time; members of the armed services; and, in some states, if you have U.S. citizenship via your parents, even if you’ve never lived in the U.S.

Expats come in all sorts; some are students, businesspeople, or military workers. They leave the US for many different reasons, too—to chase love, disavow home politics or to experience the life abroad.. Absentee ballots account for a significant number of ballots cast for presidential elections and the number has been increasing with the ease of access to casting ballots from abroad.

Statistics about Americans living abroad are elusive, though one report by the Overseas Vote Foundation, aggregating data from the US Bureau of Consular Affairs and Eurostat, estimates the number to be around 4 million, of which almost 16,000 are in Sweden. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) reported that nearly 1 million absentee ballots were sent out to overseas voters in 2008, about 60% of which were returned for counting. Approximately 273,400 votes were cast by non-military, civilian expatriates, the majority of which were affiliated with Florida, California, and Texas.

Each expat voter is still affiliated with a state, which has its own ballot of issues to vote on. The absent voter stays informed on political issues by speaking with friends and family back home, keeping up in real-time via the Internet, or engaging in comment wars in discussion forums.

Talib’s absentee ballot.But there are also those who become politically active from abroad. Carol Adamson is the Chair of Sweden’s chapter of Democrats Abroad, an organization that has been around for 50 years and whose mandate is to find Americans living abroad and register them to vote, regardless of Party affiliation. Carol is an Illinois voter who lives in Stockholm and has been in Sweden for 41 years. “It was very, very difficult to vote from abroad at the beginning,” she explains. “You had to write a letter in order to register, and then they would send you a form to return. And if you were really lucky, the ballot would arrive on time for your vote to be counted.” She remembers expats in her age group had given up on voting until 2008, when Democrats Abroad saw a large influx of interest in voting. Carol oversaw large Get Out and Vote campaigns across Sweden, from Skåne to Stockholm, and witnessed an unprecedented number of expats, many first-time voters, “come out of the woodwork to vote.”

Democrats Abroad has become a vital resource for the American expatriate voting bloc. “It is one way we are able to maintain a voice in Washington,” Carol says. Though voters from abroad have more channels to sound their opinions, there are still major concerns about lost ballots and registration procedures that leave some Americans abroad disenfranchised.

Colette Kulig, a photographer and self-professed “love immigrant,” from Vermont lives in Malmö with her boyfriend. She has mailed in her registration and is eager to vote, potentially, for the first time ever. “It’s out of my hands,” she says. “If it doesn’t come this week, then there is no way I can make it in time.” The bureaucratic barriers American expatriates must overcome still pose a problem for some voters.  “I would be heartbroken if I couldn’t vote from abroad,” Colette says. “Though I don’t live in the country, [voting] still makes me feel powerful, and it’s my right as an American citizen.”

Absentee voting can be seen as a manifestation of the affinity to the U.S. that Americans living abroad still foster. Bob Borden is a member of the American Club of Sweden. He says that voting from Sweden gives him a different perspective on politics, one that he welcomes. He talks to many expats at the Club and hears majority support for an Obama re-election. “What’s remarkable,” Bob adds, “is that Americans, even when living abroad, still have this connection to the U.S.”  Whatever the final outcome, Americans in Sweden will be following intently.


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