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Americans abroad: key swing voters?

Parties are rushing to enlist expats ahead of October registration deadlines for the Bush-Kerry contest.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2004



PARIS

Louise Meyers doesn't usually accost strangers in the street and ask them about their private lives.

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These days, though, she is making an exception: As a Paris-based foot soldier in the Democrats' worldwide campaign to register US voters abroad "I'm not shy," she says. "If I hear anyone speaking English I go up to them and ask if they are registered."

As early October deadlines approach for registering to vote in the US presidential elections approach, Ms. Meyers is part of a frantic drive by both major parties to rally their supporters around the world just in case absentee ballots tip the election scales again, as they did in 2000.

Four years ago in Florida, absentee votes from Americans living overseas turned a 202 majority for Al Gore into a 537 majority for George Bush, and changed the outcome of the election.

That result has galvanized Americans abroad of all political stripes, say activists from both parties. And the Bush administration's foreign policy has proved a special motivation to Democrats.

"This election is exceptional, it's the most important one for years," says Meyers as she takes a break from helping American students here fill out their absentee ballot applications. "We are being swamped by requests" for registration forms, she adds. "People who haven't voted for 30 or 40 years are coming to us this year."

Republicans say they too have noticed a similar pattern, though they are not so visible on the streets of European capitals. "There is a huge amount of interest" from potential Republican voters says Robert Pingeon, European head of Republicans Abroad. "We are getting four times as many requests for voting information as we did in 2000."

In Washington, the Pentagon- administered Federal Voting Assistance Program has noticed the trend too. Four years ago the agency distributed 225,000 of the postcards that overseas voters must send back to their local election bureaus in order to register. Two months before this year's elections 325,000 cards had already been spread around the world, according to Lt. Col. Joe Richard, a spokesman for the program.

Nobody knows just how many Americans live abroad, besides the 550,000 US military personnel and their dependents, but there are estimated to be between two and three million eligible voters outside the United States.

Traditionally, their turnout has been low - around 30 percent. Rumors were widespread that overseas votes were never counted, some expats are afraid that the taxman might find them, and it has been complicated to find and fill in the paperwork, especially for Americans living far from embassies or consulates.

No longer. The Internet has simplified voter registration and a number of websites, including the Federal Voting Assistance Program's own site (www.fvap.gov), explain the rules and allow potential voters to download the necessary forms.

Some are neutral, others more clearly partisan, such as the Hong Kong-based OverseasVote.com, registering supporters of John Kerry, which says that 10,000 Democratic and Independent voters applied for absentee ballots through the site in July.

www.TellAnAmericanToVote.com, launched by a group of Americans in Amsterdam earlier this year, is designed for foreigners who "feel a bit helpless" in the face of elections in which they cannot vote but whose result will inevitably impact their lives, says Claire Taylor, one of the founders of the site.

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