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Tucked in between various rides was a small wooden stand manned by a young woman dressed as an American Indian. She was keeping warm in a brown sequined hoody while handing out brochures with information about Massachusetts. There was also a Pilgrim at the fair, but she had just gone to the bathroom. The two work for the Plymouth Plantation outdoor museum in Massachusetts.
They two had been shipped out to Berlin for the festival for two weeks, so they did not need to apply for international absentee ballots.
MOST OF THE PEOPLE who approached the registration table at the Folk Festival were Germans wishing to express their love for Obama. One German woman had children who were US citizens. She picked up forms to pass on to them.
An American man who was already registered stopped to chat with the volunteers. “I supported Hillary in the primaries and won’t be voting for Obama unless he makes her his VP at the convention in two weeks,” he warned.
Gywneth Paltrow’s ad stresses that voting from abroad is “easy,” but that is not always the case. A voter is required to list their last U.S. address or — if they have never lived stateside — their parents’ last US address, along with the name of the county in which that address is located.
International voter registration and absentee ballot requests are handled by local county boards of elections, which can be tricky. One zealous Obama volunteer brought along a huge U.S. highway map on which he could look up a county if necessary.
The website votefromabroad.org has a registration form that can be printed out at home on standard copy paper. The official form used by the Obama volunteers, however, is oversize, requiring about $6 in postage. The U.S. consulate will mail them out for free on certain days, but many expatriates are turned off by the prospect of going through tight consulate security.
Also, if a voter’s last US address was in American Samoa or Guam, the registration form must be officially notarized. If a voter does not have a social security number — which is the case for many foreign born children of US citizens — some states require them to obtain a special code to fill in instead.
OF COURSE, Americans living abroad can do more than vote. They can also donate money. On October 15 Michelle Obama will host a fundraiser in London for U.S. Obama supporters based there.
George Clooney will speak at an Obama fundraiser in Zurich on September 2nd with tickets going for $1,000 a piece. Democrats in Berlin are planning their own fundraiser on August 31st. Tickets cost $47 a piece in honor of Obama’s 47th birthday. U.S. citizens only may purchase tickets, but they may bring a foreign national as their guest.
When it comes to soliciting donations from Americans living abroad, John McCain is actually somewhat ahead of Obama. In March he headlined a fundraiser at London’s Spencer House, a home built by ancestors of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. In June Cindy McCain co-hosted a $500,000 fundraiser in London with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Not everyone is pleased that American campaign fundraisers are being held on foreign soil. The legal watchdog group Judicial Watch filed a complaint against the first McCain event, asking the FEC to investigate possible illegal donations by foreign nationals.
Legal trouble is just one of many potential pitfalls in the “undiscovered country” of taking US campaigns abroad. Some Americans will be unhappy to find that individuals who have never lived in the United States are eligible to vote because one of their parents is a citizen, and that candidates are encouraging them.
But with a likely bruising election ahead, the Obama and McCain camps are looking for every advantage that they can find — at home or abroad.
Emma Elliott is a writer in Berlin.
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