"Will Mississippi election officials accept a Czech-language notarization?" Brian Reagan, an American citizen living in Prague, asked OffTheBus. Reagan was illustrating just one of many ways the vaguely written ballot requirements in at least a dozen states threaten thousands of expatriate votes.
Expats voting in Mississippi must notarize their ballots or their vote won't count. Expats voting in Minnesota must certify their ballots. South Carolina and Virginia law requires a witness to sign each overseas ballot. Louisiana and Wisconsin law require two witnesses. In the Badger State, both witnesses must be U.S. citizens, a requirement that is darn hard to meet from some corners of the world.
"We're seeing all sorts of problems, thousands of them, at all levels," said Margo Miller, co-chair of the International Voter Registration Committee for Democrats Abroad and co-founder of VoteFromAbroad.org. From her London office, Miller told OffTheBus that election officials and expat support groups have seen an increase in voter confusion this year, compared to 2004. "There's much more interest in this election, and that's part of the reason for the increased frustration with all these little-known preconditions," she said.
Expats used to feel removed from events in the United States, but not anymore. Eight years of failed foreign policy decisions by the Bush Administration have negatively impacted the lives of Americans overseas, and now they want to make their voices heard in November. What happened in Florida in 2000, and Ohio in 2004, was a wake-up call. Thousands of expats suddenly realized that their vote really can make a difference.
It's one thing to cast a vote, another to make sure it counts
In Texas, overseas ballots must be marked in dark blue or black ink, or they will not be counted. In Maryland, some counties require a #2 pencil. "What constitutes a #2 pencil in Ireland?" a mystified voter asked Miller.
In California, where Brian Reagan is from, ballots being sent out from Los Angeles may have the words Sample Ballot printed on them. "This is terribly misleading, because this slate is the only ballot these expats will receive. They should vote it, and return it," Jody Couser, press officer for Democrats Abroad, told OffTheBus.
In Ohio, a voter currently living in Germany was removed from the registered voters list in Cincinnati because he did not return an address verification notice mailed to him in 2003. He was instructed to re-register, but the notice arrived in the mail after voter registration had closed in 2008.
In Alaska, an expat with a social security number and an American passport was denied registration because he did not have an Alaskan hunting/fishing license, an Alaskan pay stub, or an Alaskan student loan. This happened to his entire family.
In Idaho, a voter currently living in Taiwan tried for three months to register, without success. Finally an election official told him that the form he mailed in -- which was taken right off the Idaho Voter Registration homepage -- was an "old card" and might be the problem.
In Minnesota, voter certification requirements changed in June, but as of this week the Secretary of State's website still had not been updated.
Expats are helping each other figure out the system
The total number of potential overseas voters is nearly seven million, and more of these American citizens are now registered than ever before. To help demystify the overseas voting process, Miller and others are using the power of the internet. "It starts with communicating the basics," she said. "Americans living abroad have the right to vote, but many of them don't know it. And many don't know they must take the initiative to request a ballot."
Websites offering assistance in figuring out the peculiarities of state ballots include DemocratsAbroad.org and VoteFromAbroad.org. Voters who have already solved a particular ballot problem are encouraged to email firstname.lastname@example.org on the Voting Action Center page, to share what they've learned with others. "Don't become discouraged by the horror stories you hear. Working together, we can make sure every vote counts," said Miller.
Expats who mailed or faxed their votes should follow-up with their local election official to make certain their ballots were received. Miller spoke with one woman who faxed her ballot twice, but still no one could find it. "As it turns out, her name was written in the wrong spot on the fax. Her vote would not have counted if she hadn't telephoned and discovered the error."
Votes for Obama will be challenged in greater numbers
More Obama votes have the potential to be questioned or discarded because the expat vote appears to be breaking his way. The overseas military vote is no longer a Republican stronghold, and civilian expats view this election as especially important because of the hostility they feel for George Bush. Larry Moffett, a former New Yorker now living in Belgium, told OffTheBus that Obama is "far more popular than McCain in Belgium, by a margin of about 10 to l."
The European media is "treating both candidates fairly objectively since Europeans try not to be seen as interfering in the affairs of a foreign country," said Moffett. The BBC is probably the most widely listened to English news source. "I think Fox News, with all its yelling and ticker-tape graphics, would terrify the average European," said Reagan.
Expats have the potential to become a silent swing vote in a number of states, but many remain confused by the larger American electorate. "We don't understand how Bush won in the first place, or how the race in 2008 can even be close. Europeans are perplexed by what the U.S. voter sees, or doesn't see," said Moffett. "The widely held view is that an Obama win is America's last chance for redemption."
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Americans living abroad who have registered to vote but still have not received a ballot can vote using the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB), a back-up ballot only available to Americans living outside the United States. It is available at www.votefromabroad.org.
Photo contributed by Tamara Rafkin, a U.S. citizen currently living in Belgium.