If the election is as close at it seems like it might be, the more-than 6 million American voters who live overseas could be a factor this year. They're not only spread out in countries around the world, but also cast votes in states across the U.S., which means they could impact Congressional races, as well as be a tie-breaker in presidential battleground states.
The question, of course, is how many of those overseas Americans are going to actually cast ballots. Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, the CEO of the non-partisan Overseas Vote Foundation, says simply, "More."
The likely increase in overseas voting in 2008 stems from a few factors--the Internet has made it both easier to vote and easier to mobilize Americans, and according to Democrats Abroad, Americans overseas are particularly intent on making this the change election pundits have promised.
On the technical front, Dzieduszycka-Suinat and the Overseas Vote Foundation have developed an application that allows a voter to go online, generate a list of candidates using her home zip code, make her selections, print the ballot, and put it in the mail. For around $22, she can even have FedEx pick it up and deliver it directly to election officials in the States.
As this is the first year that such a comprehensive online application has been available, Dzieduszycka-Suinat anticipates that more Americans are going to cast ballots.
The Internet has also allowed politically motivated Americans to find one another. Although many voter mobilization efforts still rely on fliers at American institutions, paid announcements in newspapers, and visibility events at conferences, concerts, and coffee shops where Americans are likely to gather (in London, Democrats Abroad distributes leaflets outside the Whole Foods), social networking sites can attract voters outside traditional ex-pat channels.
In Thailand, Jonathan Fox created a "Bangkok for Barack Obama" page to help connect younger Americans like himself living abroad for a short time. What started with five friends has now grown to a network of almost 100 people, who not only are motivated to vote, but come together to watch debates and speeches, phone bank, and "build the base" for the Obama campaign.
The increased use of the Internet and demographics of overseas voters would seem to suggest two trends. One, that more young overseas voters, including study abroad students and travelers, will participate in the election this year. The Overseas Vote Foundation reports that over one-third of its registrants this year are under 30.
Second, that overseas voters will skew toward Obama. Although there is no data on voter affiliation abroad, Christine Marques, the president of Democrats Abroad, believes there are simply more Democrats overseas, an assertion that would seem to be supported both by the robust organization Democrats Abroad has created and by the fact that the Obama campaign has hired field directors to organize overseas--a first for a presidential campaign.
Diana Shaw Clark, who blogs from the UK on the Obama site, says, "We have regular campaign field offices. It's just that the fields are a bit bigger."
Obama's popularity overseas is no secret, and according to Marques and Shaw, Americans abroad are desperate for a president who will restore the country's image.
"It's difficult to do business when people hold your country in contempt, or are really worried about what you're going to do next," Shaw said.
Although predicting what any group of voters will do is a bad idea, it's worth noting that Israel--the only country that has leaned toward McCain in this election--has remained in the top five countries from which users have registered on the Overseas Vote Foundation site. The other top four are Canada, the UK, Germany, and Australia.
And, for those of you watching the ground game, states with the highest percentage of overseas voters are, in order, California, Texas, New York, Florida, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and Massachusetts.