Three earnest Obama volunteers sit at a folding table stacked high with voter registration forms. People walk by and smile when they see the “Change We Can Believe In” signs. Most of them cannot register to vote, however, as they are not American citizens. This bustling main street is in Berlin, Germany.
International Voter Registration has caught on in a big way among Obama supporters, with good reason. There are an estimated 6 million registered Democrats living outside the United States. In 2004 only 1 million Americans total requested international absentee ballots.
Democrats Abroad has launched a website called votefromabroad.org, an interactive tool that guides users through the process of registering to vote and requesting an international absentee ballot. American actress Gwyneth Paltrow, herself an expatriate living in London, appeared in an online ad for the site that debuted on August 4.
Within 24 hours, votefromabroad.org had registered voters from 87 different countries and 45 states. A group called Democrats Abroad for Obama proclaimed August 9 to be “International Voter Registration day.”
Frustrated with the Bush administration, increasing numbers of Democrats living internationally are exercising their right to vote — a right many only recently learned they possess.
Miriam Volkmann, an American citizen who has lived abroad for over 30 years, did not know she was eligible to vote until she became active in the anti-war movement. She is now volunteering for Obama.
Paltrow’s ad will only be available online, as there is no one foreign concentration of U.S. citizens large enough to warrant the purchase of television airtime. Thus, on August 9 volunteers around the world hit the streets looking for unregistered Americans.
OBAMA’S SUPPORTERS in London marked the day with a so-called International Search Party.
Over 45,0000 Americans make their home in the British capital. So volunteers canvassed the streets, listening for people who say “poh-tay-toh” instead of “poh-tah-toh.” They had been advised to visit parks and look for groups playing American football. In the run up to November 4, Democrats in London will set up phone banks where UK-based volunteers can call Americans and urge them to go vote.
Democrats in Berlin had gotten off to a running start thanks to Obama’s speech here last month. According to official figures, there are around 13,000 Americans living in Berlin. Some estimates put that number closer to 20,000. But how to find them?
On International Voter Registration Day, Obama volunteers braved chilly winds and overcast skies to set up tables in four different locations across the city. Around 30 volunteers worked 3-hour shifts, and their efforts resulted in a total of 33 new registrations.
Generally, one volunteer sat at the table to register people while two others walked through the surrounding neighborhoods, listening for the strains of American English. A volunteer muttered “this is ridiculous” as she eavesdropped on conversations in an open-air market.
One of the tables was set up at Belluno’s Italian Cafe, but a whole morning passed without the discovery of a single unregistered American. At one point, a man speaking perfect English with a slight California lilt approached the table. He was a German citizen who had lived in the US for many years and wanted to recommend some popular American expat hangouts.
The volunteers hoped to find a high concentration of Americans at the German-American Folk Festival. They set up a registration table across from a red, white, and blue bingo tent covered in pictures of Uncle Sam and a life-size cutout of Samuel Adams holding up a pint of his beer.
The German-American Folk Festival is essentially a fair like the ones found all over the US. Each year the festival showcases the culture of a different American state. This year it was Massachusetts, and event staff sported shirts with the slogan “Indian Summer in Berlin.”
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.