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

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

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.

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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.

"The US President affects the whole world. I can't elect a new one. But you can" reads the message that foreign web users are urged to send to their American neighbors, along with a hyperlink to a site where voters can download a ballot application. 6,000 of them had done so by the end of August, Ms. Taylor says.

A top issue: foreign policy

Democratic organizers say they are especially hopeful that their supporters will go to the trouble of arranging an absentee ballot because - in the words of the activists - they have suffered the consequences of an unpopular US foreign policy personally.

"We are living in contact with our friends and allies and we feel the missteps of the administration much more poignantly than our families back home," says Joseph Smallhoover, international counsel for Democrats Abroad.

Democrats Abroad, online at www.democratsabroad.org, has more than doubled the number of its chapters to 72 over the past three years, according to Mr. Smallhoover. "Democrats have been extraordinarily energized," he says. "They are so angry about what has been going on in Washington that they have been registering to vote almost without our doing anything."

Republicans in Europe have relied mostly on their websites, including www.republicansabroad.com, as well as advertisements in the English-language European press, to do their registration work. Democratic volunteers have been more of a street presence across the continent, waylaying cinema goers in London on their way out of screenings of "Fahrenheit 9/11," for example, or setting up tables at Starbucks in Paris.

They have also been reaching out to a natural constituency - American students spending a year or so in Paris - who might not ordinarily go to the trouble of registering to vote but who this year have flocked to the Democrats' registration drives, say volunteers.

"I think it's very important that everyone gets a vote in because it's going to be close and every vote is going to count," says Laura Otterpohl, a major in International Communications at the American University of Paris, after filling out her absentee ballot application.

Even young voters who find it hard to work up much enthusiasm for John Kerry are answering the call: "I wasn't planning on voting, but I decided that this time it's gotta be done," says Anna Buxton, a third year art history student. "I feel so strongly against one candidate that I'm sure the other one can't do such a bad job."

But for all the Democratic action, the Republicans say they are confident of the overseas vote. "I would worry if this year all the Democrats registered," says Mr. Pingeon, "were it not for the fact that we too are seeing an enormous increase in interest."

The military factor

It is also believed that military personnel overseas - who turn out in higher percentages than the national average - tend to vote Republican.

Last week was Armed Forces Voters Week. Military commanders around the world encouraged soldiers to mail in federal forms to register and request absentee ballots. Many states require overseas voters to register by Oct. 3 or Oct. 4.

Members of the military can request absentee ballots by e-mail.

Earlier this year, the Department of Defense shelved a new system designed to let service personnel vote over the Internet since it was easily hacked during tests.

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