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"You set up a table, and they come. You set up a web site, and they come. Everyone wants to register this year. They're coming out of the woodwork to find us," says Robert Checkoway.
But he's not talking about the massive voter registration efforts in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and other swing states; Checkoway is chairman of Democrats Abroad Netherlands, and he bears witness to this exploding phenomenon outside the United States.
If passion is proving the crucial motivator registering Americans to vote at home, it has reached a fever pitch overseas, where U.S. citizens are signing up in record numbers. Ranging from 3 to 7 million globally, U.S. expatriates have rallied to cast their ballots, recognizing their role in an election both sides say could be the most decisive in decades.
In Holland, home to an estimated 30,000 Americans, U.S. expatriates have been particularly vigilant encouraging absentee voter registration. Claire Taylor, a copywriter living in Amsterdam, was one of the first to spur the upsurge by launching the web site TellAnAmericanToVote.com. Motivated by Dutch friends who voiced their desire to vote – but couldn't – Taylor decided to funnel their enthusiasm into encouraging expatriates to register. "Everyone here knows an American," says Taylor, a native Floridian. "We feel we're winning back the expat voice by realizing we do have the right to vote."
According to Taylor, TellAnAmericanToVote.com, a nonpartisan web site, has registered nearly 10,000 voters since its launch in May, with more than 200 people signing up daily – triple the initial number. The site offers step-by-step instructions, posted in 13 languages to further voter outreach, on what remains a cumbersome process.
Checkoway, who originally hails from Boston, says that Democrats Abroad, the official Democratic Party organization for six million overseas Americans, has seen unprecedented traffic on its web site. The organization has actively developed new chapters, with committees in 76 countries, and membership in the Dutch chapter has doubled to 700 in recent months.
Much of the overseas registration drive has been aided by the Internet. Outside the Netherlands, a slew of similar websites established to inform absentee voters have also experienced an upswing in interest, including Americans Overseas for Kerry-Edwards, headed by Diana Kerry, sister of Democratic hopeful Sen. John Kerry; OverseasVote.com, a pro-Democrat site based in Hong Kong; AVAWorld.com, run by American Voices Abroad, American Overseas Network, a non-profit non-partisan organization that provides an online political forum, and the self-explanatory ExpatsAgainstBush.org. Most sites either oppose President Bush or remain solidly nonpartisan; only Republicansabroad.org, with 50 overseas chapters, serves Republican interests.
While the Internet has proven a fundamental political tool for expatriates, its use has also caused significant glitches. In mid-September, the Pentagon blocked access to its Federal Voting Assistance Program web site, established by the Defense Department to aid expatriate voters, including servicemen, with absentee ballots. Internet service providers in 25 countries were denied access, causing an outcry from would-be voters racing against state registration deadlines. After Congressional interference, the block was lifted several days later. The Pentagon, which had initially indicated the block was meant to thwart hackers, backpedaled by saying it had inadvertently been left in place, giving no real reason for its existence.
"Americans abroad are like the 51st state," says Kelly Johnson, business manager of Expatica.com's Expat Survival Guide, based in Amsterdam. Johnson and other fellow Americans have held several "vote-o-ramas" in the Netherlands, featuring live entertainment to encourage registration. Johnson, who registered six months ago and is still awaiting her absentee ballot, feels voting in this election is critical. "Our voice should be equal to other Americans paying taxes," she says. "I'm going to take a flight home if I have to. Not voting is not an option."
As Johnson's experience shows, many states remain behind schedule sending out absentee ballots. "I still don't have mine," says Taylor, "and I certainly underestimated the amount of one-on-one attention expat voters need." To make sure such efforts will not be waylaid, DHL has offered a 38 percent discount to all U.S. voters sending their ballots.
Indeed for many expatriates, who are directly impacted by Bush's foreign policies – especially the intensifying conflict in Iraq – the drive to vote and change administration has fed the current groundswell. "We're on the frontlines of global public opinion everyday, and much better informed than those at home" says Checkoway. "International news sources and local media present a much more balanced view of world events. Certainly, the major issue for voters overseas is why we're in Iraq."
And Iraq is the reason many Dutch, who believe Bush blithely waved aside international opposition to war, have got involved in the election effort. "I strongly disagree with President Bush's world view," says Erick Vroons, a volunteer with TellAnAmericanToVote.com. Vroons interned at New York University's Media Ecology Department and has conducted research on Dutch elections. "I can't vote, so I wanted to compensate by supporting the democratic process and mobilizing voices that strongly disagree with current U.S. policy."
Derk Bonthuis, a Dutch graduate law student studying at the University of Groningen, was also prompted to participate. "Over the last four years, America has lost so much international support and trust, especially on moral grounds, that Europeans can't believe this is a close race. For us, the choice is quite simple," says Bonthuis, who came to the U.S. to volunteer for the Nevada State Democratic party campaign. "The war on terror is a huge, brutal contradiction. You can't fight it by building a wall high enough to protect yourself. The only safety is being surrounded by friends – but instead, America continues making enemies."
Perhaps the greatest incentive stirring expats to action is the realization that their votes could determine the outcome of this election. After the 2000 presidential race in Florida, where Bush gained the razor-thin advantage by 537 votes, it seems highly plausible absentee ballots could swing the presidency this year. Post-election analysis has shown that Gore would have won by 202 votes had overseas ballots – particularly late military ones – not been counted.
"We're a growing community and our input is valid. To think your vote doesn't count this year is ridiculous," says Taylor. "I've received emails from expatriates who are voting for the first time in their lives. They've suddenly realized this is their greatest form of empowerment."
Dara Colwell is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.