Although the presidential campaign rhetoric in recent days has been dominated by “sending jobs overseas,” more than 5 million Americans do live and work overseas and some of them vote and contribute to candidates. Highlighting their importance, Mitt Romney will be appearing at fundraising events when he visits London and Jerusalem at the end of July.
As with candidate Barack Obama’s speech in Berlin during the 2008 campaign, Romney’s foreign tour is a reminder that Americans living abroad are no longer forgotten citizens in election years. They’re a source not only of votes, but of campaign funds: one of Romney’s London events is a dinner with a minimum contribution of $25,000 and his event in Jerusalem asks $50,000 per couple (unless you've raised $100,000 for the Republican's campaign).
Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinatat, president of the Overseas Vote Foundation said, “Too many Americans abroad still think they need to be maintaining a U.S. residence or mailing address to vote -- that is totally untrue. Some think their ballots aren't counted -- another myth!”
If it’s a close election this November, the outcome might come down to a few thousand votes in swing states such as Florida, Virginia and Ohio. And some of those last few thousand swing-state voters may be residing not in Miami, Charlottesville or Cincinnati, but in Tel Aviv, Shanghai and Berlin. The votes of Americans overseas are counted in the state in which they last resided: the Virginian residing in China has his or her vote counted in Virginia.
According to the federal Election Assistance Commission, in the 2008 election those three states had almost 150,000 overseas votes counted:
- 26,300 in Ohio
- 28,000 in Virginia
- 95,000 in Florida
Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition -- who just returned from a voter-mobilization trip to Israel with Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush -- said about 150,000 Americans living in Israel are eligible to vote.
“We wanted to go over there to help raise awareness of the critical issues facing Israel and facing the Jewish community in the 2012 election and encourage those folks who are eligible to register and to vote in November,” Brooks said.
“We believe this is going to be a very close election and if we’re able to mobilize a significant number of U.S. citizens living abroad who are eligible to vote, especially in the battleground states -- Florida was decided in 2000 by a little over 500 votes -- we’re going to leave no stone unturned,” Brooks said.
He contended that “President Obama has a problem with the Jewish vote and the Jewish community” partly due to his “failed policies” in the Middle East.
David Harris, the president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, the Democrats’ counterpart to the RJC, said, “We hope to travel there or get Democratic surrogates -- including elected officials -- to Israel,” to make the case for Obama to American voters there.
Of the RJC, Harris said, “We have a much easier sale than they do,” since Jewish voters have long preferred Democratic candidates by about a three-to-one ratio.
Another group working on facilitating voting by Americans living in Israel is iVoteIsrael, formed last year.
National Director Elie Pieprz said, “By creating a streamlined process, sort of a voting concierge, iVoteIsrael seeks to overcome the largest obstacle to voter participation,” which is overseas residents receiving their ballots too late from their state or county elections official in the United States, or sending them back too late for the vote to be counted.
“The goal of the campaign is to maximize the absentee vote from Israel,” Pieprz said. “We are not endorsing any candidate or party, and our message is targeted at both sides of the aisle.”
But the Federal Voting Assistance Program, the agency in charge of helping overseas Americans vote, recently stirred a furor by changing the form used to register to vote or request a ballot.
On the revised federal post card application, the would-be voter is asked to check whether they “intend” or “do not intend” to return to the United States.
Roland Crim, a spokesman on voting issues for American Citizens Abroad, said in a statement that if overseas Americans declared an intent not to return they would “risk having state election officials improperly disqualify their votes in federal elections.” He said, “The language of the new form acted as a form of voting repellent, particularly for voters uncertain as to what the future might portend.”
“No voter should be asked to check that box,” Dzieduszycka-Suinatat said, partly because state and local election officials might not send the ballot to the voter if they think he’s never coming back to the United States.
According to Defense Department Spokesperson Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, the FVAP, which is part of the Defense Department, changed the language on the 2011 form "to assist voters in complying with voter eligibility laws in most states." She said 40 states and the District of Columbia have statutory language regarding the intent of an absent voter to return to the state or district.
Now on the FVAP website, both the older post card application -- which does not ask about intent to return to the United States -- and the 2011 revised form are available. Voters “can use either form depending on their needs and comfort level,” Hull-Ryde said.
Apart from that controversy, Dzieduszycka-Suinatat said voting for overseas Americans is often smooth since they can receive their ballots online. (Go to the Overseas Vote Foundation website.)
And she said, “FedEx teams with [the Overseas Vote Foundation] every election year to offer at-your-doorstep pick up for ballots to be sent back to U.S. election offices in a matter of a day or two at very reduced rates, special for U.S. voters overseas.”
She added that this year U.S. citizens residing abroad have another incentive to vote: their unhappiness with a 2010 law called Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which imposes fines for those who do not report information on their foreign bank accounts (if their aggregate value exceeds $50,000) to the Internal Revenue Service. The minimum penalty for failing to submit the information is $10,000; the maximum penalty is $50,000.
“It makes all kinds of sense to find people who are hiding money overseas to keep it from being taxed,” she said. “But what happened is that in their net, they ended up persecuting the average Joe who lives overseas.”
She said, “It’s almost as if the U.S. doesn’t appreciate the fact that we’re out here representing the country, building trade.” She said, “without representation, overseas Americans can be somewhat persecuted.”