Democrats tout first 'global primary'

The group Democrats Abroad has made it easier for expatriates to weigh in on Super Tuesday.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Come early February, a wood-paneled conference room in this city's historic Grande Bretagne Hotel will be one of the farthest-flung outposts of the heated battle for the Democratic presidential nominee.

This year, the Democratic Party is conducting its first "global primary" that will allow Democrats living abroad to vote by Internet, mail, or fax or in one of the centers being set up in more than 30 countries. Voting starts on "Super Tuesday" – Feb. 5 – and will last for eight days.

"We're trying to make it as easy as possible for Americans to participate from all over the world," says Christine Schon Marques, international chairwoman of Democrats Abroad, the official, volunteer arm of the Democratic Party, which is coordinating the primary. "The online process especially is very new for us. It's very exciting."

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For many active overseas Democrats, the global primary is as much a way of galvanizing potential voters in what many predict will be a hard-fought election as giving expatriate Democrats a voice. While this is not the first time Democrats Abroad has sent a delegation to the national convention, this year, the party is trying to reach out beyond the traditional party activists.

Some 6 million Americans abroad are eligible to vote – including US military personnel – but in 2006 fewer than 1 million applied for absentee ballots.

Beth Tate Hondros, who heads the Greek chapter of Democrats Abroad, notes that there a lot of Greek-Americans as well as Greeks who went to America, gained citizenship, and have now returned. She estimates that 80,000 and 120,000 US passport holders live here, many of them dual citizens. A lot, she says, think, " 'What connection do I have to what happens [in the US]?' That's one thing that we hope – it will help get these people out to vote," she says.

Democrats Abroad will send 22 delegates to the August Democratic Convention in Denver, 14 of whom will be elected through the global primary. The remaining eight members of the delegation are "superdelegates" – high-ranking members whose votes are not bound by primary or caucus results.

But with each of the expatriate delegates getting only half a vote, Democrats living abroad will have a convention delegation whose size is somewhere between those of Guam and Wyoming.

The Republican Party does not give its expatriates a separate block of votes at their convention. Members living abroad can vote by absentee ballot.

"We can still vote in our state primaries," says Cynthia Dillon, executive director of Republicans Abroad, which has not been an official part of the party since 2003. "It's not like we feel disenfranchised."

But Ms. Hondros says giving expatriates their own block of votes at the convention helps members abroad express a unified voice about issues central to them, like the decline in the dollar. They also hope that it will make it easier for Democrats to have a voice in the candidate selection process.

Under the new system, Democrats living abroad can now choose to vote either in their home state presidential primary or in the global primary– which will run Feb. 5-12 – but they cannot vote in both. Voters must register with Democrats Abroad by Jan. 31. At international polling stations, voters will be allowed to join and vote that day.

A successful primary could open the door to a broader use of the Internet to help US voters overseas. Everyone Counts, the San Diego-based company running the Internet voting, says it has implemented security measures and has made its source code public to allay fears of electronic vote-rigging.

So far, winning the Democrats Abroad delegation hasn't been a high priority for any of the candidates, although activists living abroad concede it's not exactly easy to campaign for a bloc of voters spread so thinly across such a vast area. Many online sites following delegate tallies in the run-up to the polls fail to include the Democrats Abroad in their counts.

But volunteers say they hope that expatriate Democrats will be galvanized by what they say is an unusually strong field of contenders. "It's a pretty exciting primary," says Ms. Marques. "I think it's great that we have a great choice of candidates."

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