eyes on the U.S.

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 â€" 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.

Democrats Abroad helped in Obama's first victory â€" 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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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