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Expat Voters — Will They Start To Matter In 2016?

Canada's Republicans Abroad gather to watch 2012 election results in Toronto
Canada's Republicans Abroad gather to watch 2012 election results in Toronto
Therese Raphael

WASHINGTON — In November 1968, a young Rhodes Scholar by the name of Bill Clinton was "mad as hell," as he told a friend back in Arkansas in a letter penned from Oxford University. Clinton's absentee ballot hadn't arrived in time for him to cast his vote for the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, who lost to Richard Nixon that year.

Democrats and Republicans had only begun to make some feeble attempts to encourage overseas voters at the time. But the registration process was burdensome and the rules confusing.

Nearly a half-century later, we are witnessing the rise of Expat Man and Expat Woman. The laws have changed to make overseas voting easier and efforts such as Vote from Abroad have helped inform voters and facilitate registration. The Democratic and Republican parties have woken up to the fact that, according to the State Department, 7.6 million Americans live outside the territorial limits of the U.S.; by population, equivalent to the 13th American state.

Expat Man cannot be wooed with the same stump lines that appeal to voters back home. In some ways, he will find more common ground across the political aisle than with party confederates in the U.S. Both parties are vying for his vote and his fundraising dollar. But neither has quite grasped how to appeal to the expat voter.

Expat Man is well-educated; 95.3 percent hold a bachelor's degree and 56 percent a master's degree, according to research by Kent University's Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels, whose research is cited in a report on overseas voters out last week by the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford.

American citizens living abroad can mostly be found working in IT (or communications), professional/scientific or technical jobs, education, or finance. They have relocated for romance, employment or schooling, and many might describe themselves as "accidental migrants." I'm one of them; a short stint abroad morphed into more than two decades away from home and new roots in Britain.

Conversations with party activists confirm my own impression that three issues are foremost in the mind of this voter. The first is taxes, and especially the F-word for expats. That would be Fatca, the reviled Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which imposes such burdensome reporting requirements on foreign financial institutions that they have turned American account-holders away. Fatca and tax rules generally have been fingered in the growing number of Americans abroad who renounce their citizenship. In a 2015 survey, 86 percent of respondents felt the law needs to be reworked. Both parties' representatives abroad agree on that, though there are differences on how they propose to accomplish it.

Second, Expat Man cares about America's standing in the world. Americans abroad have woken up to the limits of American power and the complexities of the problems the U.S. and its allies face. They tend to believe, with Theodore Roosevelt: "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." Trump's Make America Great Again trope makes a lot of Americans abroad cringe. Republican commentator Stacy Hilliard, a Texan who has been a party activist in the U.K., notes that Expat Man is looking for "the ability to attend a dinner party without being put in a corner and attacked."

The third issue on Expat Man's radar is economic leadership. Americans overseas have seen the benefits of globalization, often work in international settings and are likely to support of free trade agreements. They may also have U.S. bank accounts and send money home to family or kids attending American colleges. They are sensitive to anything that increases uncertainty or volatility in the global economy and look for economic leadership.

Though it is undersized (and voter turnout generally even lower than domestic turnout), the vote potential of Expat Man no longer draws dismissive sniggers. Delayed overseas ballots helped give the 2000 election to George W. Bush (an event that Democrats Abroad says led to a tripling in registrations). Voting from abroad also arguably affected other close election contests, including a 2009 New York Congressional race that gave a narrow victory to Democrat Scott Murphy and the 2008 Senate race in Minnesota in which a Republican incumbent, Norm Coleman, was defeated by a wafer-slim margin by Democratic challenger Al Franken.

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Democrats Abroad helped in Obama's first victory — Photo: Notacrime

The two parties have different strategies for reaching overseas voters. The Democratic Party goes for voter engagement. Bill Clinton's former home of Oxford is one of five cities around the U.K., and 100 worldwide, where American expats who are registered as Democrats can vote in primaries (and where Bernie Sanders's brother Larry will vote on Super Tuesday). Democrats Abroad will send 21 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, about the same as Wyoming.

Republicans overseas don't have that option; they would have to vote in their state's primary back home or watch from the sidelines. (Republicans Overseas did poll voters about their preferences: Marco Rubio led Donald Trump.) Instead, some are setting up political action committees (Hilliard is launching one this week) to give overseas voters another way to get their messages across.

For both parties, the main value of Expat Man is his wallet. Outside of North America, the U.K. -- with around 224,000 Americans, according to a State Department estimate that is probably too low -- has the largest number of American expats, and probably the most generous. As the steady parade of candidates and their surrogates testifies, London is on the fundraising map along with New York and Los Angeles.

The Rothermere Institute paper cites figures showing that expat Americans donated around $6 million to presidential candidates in the 2008 election cycle, a particularly active election for fundraising. Expat donors are hard work, however. "You have to court these donors more than you do at home because they really have to buy into the candidate as well as the policy; and that's something I've seen candidates misjudge time and again," says Hilliard.

All the impassioned pleas to the party faithful, the stump speeches and attack ads back home can leave Expat Man feeling a bit flat. Like Bill Clinton of old, they may be "mad as hell," but today's overseas Americans are looking for more than just a ballot; they want a say.

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