Will Burgess  /  Reuters file
Democrat volunteers Peter Bloomfield and Gaby Flavin help sign-up Ben Tisdel of Colorado for an absentee ballot request in Sydney, Australia's Martin Place on July 8th.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/26/2004 10:55:27 AM ET 2004-07-26T14:55:27

With every new presidential poll that shows incumbent George W. Bush and contender John Kerry running in a dead heat, American volunteer Margo Miller, watching from England, is even more convinced her mission is the right one. Miller is a leading player in a grassroots movement to mobilize expatriate voters.

If Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin are battleground states, then London, Toronto, Berlin and Paris are quickly becoming ground zero cities in an international effort to muster some six million American "absentee voters" to register and vote. U.S. ex-pats are responding to the call in record numbers.

“It’s only July,” exclaimed Miller, sprawled out on the grass of London’s Regent Park and picnicking with approximately 150 other “Democrats Abroad.”

“And already we have out registered ourselves, compared to 2000. I’ve seen American ex-pats who haven’t voted in 20, 30, 40 years coming out of the woodwork to vote,” said Miller.

Both sides of fence after the vote
Democrats and Republicans overseas say they are more motivated this election because both sides saw the impact of absentee ballots on the Bush-Gore election in Florida, and subsequently on the nation, in 2000.

Historically, absentee ballots are counted after an election is called, and only to make the final tally official. But, as any Democrat ex-pat will painfully recall, Al Gore led in Florida by around 350 votes with all precincts in. However, after the absentee ballots were tallied, George Bush led by a little over 500 votes. And with that seismic shift, the rest was history.

“I never realized how much my vote counted until Florida,” said a Republican ex-pat in Paris. The same sentiment was echoed by a Democrat in London, “Florida showed us why we can make or break an election, and we just can’t let the next one slip away!”

Renewed motivation for voters
Analysts believe there are other deep-seated motivators at work for both sides.

Jeremiah Sheehan is an American architect who has lived and worked in London for some 30  years. He is the kind of ex-pat who completely embraced his host culture, people, and lifestyle. Sheehan says he had hardly mixed with and never sought out the company of other Americans here, but now he has been moved to work as an “Elect Kerry” volunteer in London.

He’s already registered to vote in St. Louis, and is encouraging other ex-pats to do so. Why? Because, for the first time -- and even in his Southeast London neighborhood -- Britons heckle Sheehan, and call him names like “bloody Yank.” Some have even threatened him after they detected his Midwestern accent.

“It’s something I haven’t lost, and don’t intend to,” said Sheehan. “So I just try to shut up. I know it’s not meant against me, personally, but because I’m probably a soft target for their anger when it comes to the war in Iraq and U.S. support for Israel.”

Droves of American ex-pats are registering to vote for Kerry, they say, because anyone is better than the status quo. They feel increasingly targeted, and embarrassed to have to apologize for what so many “foreigners” see as an arrogant, and alienating, U.S. foreign policy.

But across Europe, officials for “Republicans Abroad” claim they are witnessing a similar surge in voter registration –- that Americans overseas are sick and tired of all the “Bush- bashing,” particularly in Western Europe, and are closing ranks around the incumbent President.

“Republicans traditionally win the overseas vote by about 3-to-1,” said Robert Pingeon, European Chairmen for “Republicans Abroad,” based in Paris. “We have no intention of losing that edge this time around.”

Dean, Quayle woo voters
“That is just so much Republican propaganda!” retorted former U.S. Presidential contender and current Kerry cheerleader, Howard Dean. “They say they will win the military and corporate ex-pat vote, but in fact, American soldiers are running from Bush because of the war in Iraq, and overseas businessmen think Bush’s economics are just crazy.”

Dean was recently in London to inspire hundreds of “Democrats Abroad- U.K.” volunteers to get out the vote. “The profile of the ex-pat voter is changing,” Dean explained from his hotel room, in between rapid-fire, campaign-like appearances.

“More and more ordinary Americans abroad are going to vote Democrat this time because Americans, like everyone, like to be liked, and they see that the Bush Administration has turned the world against them.”

Republicans are using similar tactics. In May, former Vice-President Dan Quayle paid a VIP visit to GOP volunteers in Berlin, reminding them that, in a close election, every absentee ballot does count.

Internet gets out the vote
But Republican volunteers seem to be running behind the Democrats abroad when it comes to the newest, most effective means of rallying overseas voters: via the Internet.

From London to Sydney, websites that facilitate absentee voting are proliferating like cyber mushrooms. Most of them are pro-Kerry, or at least very anti-Bush in appeal, like, run by American Brett Rierson in Hong Kong.

“Our numbers are exploding,” Rierson claimed as he pointed at a chart on his desktop that measures “hits” on his website. not only speeds up the often cumbersome and bureaucratic process of registering online, but it also encourages Chinese to nudge on any American friends to register as well.

Similar to “tell-an-American-to-vote” websites have sprung up in Germany, the Netherlands, and France as well. According to Rierson, “at this rate we could have 100,000 American ex-pats registered to vote in time for November, just from our site.”

Republicans, however, say they are not nervous, insisting that their volunteers are working hard, if without the “shrill” of the Democrat activists who often appear to be stalking would-be voters wherever U.S. ex-pats mix and meet.

“I’ve got volunteers with ad hoc registration stands outside McDonalds, at American schools, hotels, stores -- I even had them working the crowd at the Wimbledon tennis championships!” Miller admitted.

“There is no reason to believe that this Presidential election will be any less of a nail-biter than 2000,” predicted Steven Hill, a political analyst based in San Francisco. What is different is that overseas voters now know that, in a close election, their vote can make a difference between who wins and who loses. It’s a new world.”

Since absentee ballots are counted on a county level, no one will really know how ex-pats, say, in France, voted. Short of spending millions  of dollars on research and analysis, the overseas vote will remain shrouded in mystery. But, from picnics in London to pub crawls in Hong Kong, American volunteers are more active than ever before,  determined to take the “absentee” out of the “absentee ballot.”

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based out of London.


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