PARIS, Dec. 20, 2007 -- At the appointed hour, all eyes in the room, a plush living-room in the heart of Paris, moved to the laptop perched on a table.
The guests, who had paid $100 per head for the occasion, were waiting to hear Michelle Obama, wife of Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama.
Mrs. Obama had agreed to personally address the gathering, a fundraiser organized by Americans Abroad for Obama, a voluntary group of expatriate Americans supported by the 2008 Obama campaign.
The laptop was to provide the link from a hotel room in Illinois, from where Mrs. Obama was stumping for her husband, to a Parisian salon, where dozens of Obama supporters were willing and eager to cough up cash to help get their candidate into the White House.
It was Saturday, Nov. 10, the night Obama would go on to deliver a thumping speech at the annual Jefferson Jackson dinner that many analysts say turned the Democratic tide in favor of the Illinois senator.
The timing was not lost on Mrs. Obama. “Who would have thought that as we prepare for this important speech, I would be talking to a group of supporters gathered in a Paris room,” she said when the call finally came through. “Thank you,” she added, with the panache of a seasoned campaigner. “We’re gonna’ take the White House.”
US presidential campaigns are increasingly expensive affairs and as Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani put it, “every fundraising opportunity is important.”
The former mayor of New York City was speaking at a Sept. press conference in London, where he kicked off his international fundraising efforts targeting Americans living abroad. Under US law, only US citizens and green card-holders can contribute to federal politics.
Giuliani is the biggest Republican beneficiary of funds from Americans abroad so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a Washington-based non-partisan research organization. As of September, Giuliani had received $166,050 - next only to Obama, who, at $290,716 is leading the race to snag the foreign dollar.
American voters abroad are an important – if often overlooked – constituent of US presidential elections. And these days, they are willing to put their money where their mouths are. In the first three-quarters of 2007 alone, Americans abroad contributed nearly $731,000 – exceeding the $500,000 raised during the entire 2000 presidential campaign, according to the CRP. Contributions from abroad however account for less than one percent of total contributions raised by US presidential candidates.
2000: The year – and the election – that changed everything
US citizens living abroad have had the right to vote by casting an absentee ballot since 1975, when Congress passed the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act. Popularly called “the overseas vote,” it has traditionally been dominated by US military personnel stationed abroad.
The reasons for the dominance of the military in the overseas vote are not hard to gauge. The military infrastructure makes it easier to service their members with registration papers, absentee ballots and the myriad requirements for voting abroad. Civilian voters have historically been overlooked, a failure that was highlighted during the 2000 campaign, when American employees of DaimlerChrysler in Stuttgart were forced to beg for voting forms at the gates of a US military base.
But all that changed in the 2000 election debacle, when thousands of overseas votes were lost during an acrimonious, knife-edged race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.
For longtime American expats, who have frequently griped about their underrepresentation, the 2000 race was a nightmare situation come true. “It was an extraordinarily frustrating experience,” said Joseph Smallhoover, chairman of the French chapter of Democrats Abroad. “I had been warning about this kind of situation for years,” he said. “And the response was like, ‘yeah, yeah, keep talking.’ No one was taking us seriously.”
It’s impossible to know just how many Americans live abroad. Estimates range from between 3 million to 8 million Americans, both civilians and military, living and working abroad. A US Census committee assigned to investigate the possibility of counting overseas Americans in 2004 concluded that it was an impossible task.
Unlike expats from several European nations, American expats do not have their own representatives in Congress. The French Senate, for example, has 12 seats reserved for French citizens living abroad. For that to happen, according to Michael McDonald, an elections specialist at the Virginia-based George Mason University, it would require a constitutional amendment for which, “there is no political will”.
Simplifying a ‘mind-boggling’ process online
But the situation is gradually improving for American expats. Earlier this year, an Americans Abroad Caucus was founded in Congress, comprised of six representatives, three from each party. The caucus has introduced two bills aimed at expanding expatriate voter education, ensuring overseas ballots are counted and simplifying voter registration.
Casting a US overseas vote can be a daunting process, according to McDonald. “I’m not exaggerating this: the rule book for voter registration is as thick as a telephone directory,” he said. “There are different rules for each state and within states, counties have different procedures. It’s mind-boggling.”
Most election experts believe the solution lies on the Web. McDonald, for instance, advises the Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF), a Virginia-based nonpartisan group that recently unveiled a voter-assistance Web site (www.overseasvotefoundation.org) designed to simplify the registration process. And after years of bumpy, costly experimentation, the Pentagon plans to inaugurate its updated voter Web site that would enable overseas citizens to download online ballots.
‘A critical election at a critical time’
And eight years after the “Florida circus” - as the 2000 election is derisively called – shamed the country, the two main political parties seem to be taking their lessons seriously. International arms of both parties have been organizing events at which issues are discussed, information disseminated and volunteers aid the registration process.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the efforts of both parties to incorporate and include Americans abroad in the political process,” said David Finn, an American lawyer currently based in Paris. “I’ve learned more about the American political process here than when I was in the US.”
Finn’s involvement - as an expatriate - in the US political process propelled him and his wife to organize the Nov. 10 Obama fundraiser at their Paris apartment. He also has a personal stake in the ’08 campaign: Finn was at Harvard Law School with Obama and, as he told the folks gathered at his place that night, he can vouch for the overall niceness of his former school peer.
But for Finn, it’s not just personal issues at stake. He believes he speaks for several Americans abroad when he talks about a heightened political awareness during the 2008 presidential campaign. “I sense an intensified interest this time, perhaps because of an increasing concern by Americans living abroad of how the United States is perceived in the world on a whole host of issues,” he said. “It’s a critical election at a critical time. There are complex issues at stake – Iraq, climate change, Iran – and I know many friends in France and other parts of the world want to be involved because we encounter people’s perceptions and we sense the declining image of America abroad.”