Democracy & Government

What the Democratic Party Could Learn From Its Overseas Footsoldiers

Votes from Democrats Abroad often make the critical difference in close contests — and demonstrate that every vote counts.

What the Democratic Party Could Learn [...]

Larry Sanders, seen here stumping for his younger brother Bernie in the American expat community's "global primary" is one of many Democrats who have taken advantage of the party's active chapter for Americans abroad. (Photo by John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the most memorable moments from last week’s Democratic convention was the touching show of love between Sen. Bernie Sanders and his older brother, Larry.

The elder Sanders, a resident of the United Kingdom, was elected as a delegate for Democrats Abroad (DA), the official international arm of the Democratic Party. On the convention floor, his fellow Democratic expats gave him the honor of announcing his own vote, in a voice heavy with emotion, in favor of the presidential candidate he called “Bernard.”

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That poignant moment during the official convention roll call put a spotlight on Democrats Abroad, a more than 50-year-old volunteer organization, without staff or a budget, that the Democratic Party created to mobilize voters living abroad.

The approximately 8 million American expats make up a voting bloc nearly double that of Washington state, the 13th most populous state in the nation. Were they to constitute a state, they would have about 14 electoral votes. Americans abroad are students and retirees, military and diplomatic personnel, people on short- and long-term job assignments, Americans with foreign spouses, and their children.

Within the DNC, Democrats Abroad operates like a state party, doing what every other state party does: It organizes its own presidential primary and sends delegates to the convention to pick the presidential nominee. There’s no real GOP equivalent: Republicans Overseas is not recognized by the Republican National Committee as a state party.

This year, DA’s global primary had record turnout. The 34,570 voters who cast ballots exceeded the number of Democrats who showed up for state party presidential caucuses this year in Nebraska, Idaho, Alaska, Hawaii and Wyoming, according to votes compiled by University of Florida turnout expert Michael McDonald’s United States Election Project. Sanders overwhelmingly won the competition, receiving 69 percent of the vote and 9 of the 13 committed delegates — including his big brother, Larry. (Democrats Abroad also has eight superdelegates, but each receives only a half-vote, unlike every other state party — they have twice as many DNC members as they might normally have).

Americans living abroad play a significant but little-noticed role in general elections across the country as well. They organize, phone bank and raise money for candidates, and vote (doing so by absentee ballot at their last US voting address).

Democrats Abroad coordinates much of this activity and helps expats request and cast their absentee ballot using its online tool: www.votefromabroad.org.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) won his first race by such a narrow margin that voters abroad arguably tipped the balance. (Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage)

Expat votes often make the critical difference in close contests across the country.

Just ask Sens. Al Franken (D-MN) and Jon Tester (D-MT) — both of whom were elected by slim margins in 2008 and 2012, respectively. The number of votes they received from abroad exceeded their margins of victory in their first Senate races. Franken sometimes jokes that 300 Minnesotans in France decided the outcome of his race. (Of course, he could and probably does adapt the same joke to gatherings of Democrats in Duluth, too, in order to illustrate the importance of voting.)

The political relevance of Democrats Abroad and the expat community extends beyond their status as a voting bloc. In the 2016 Global Presidential Primary, Democrats Abroad proved that the primaries can be welcoming as well as efficient, avoiding many of the issues that plagued the 2016 primary process stateside.

For example, unlike some other state parties:

  • Democrats Abroad enables registration for its primary online.
  • Primary voters can join the party as late as primary Election Day and still vote (with an official, not provisional ballot). That’s about as open as a closed primary can be.
  • Party members can start voting via email a few weeks before the official primary day. Mail-in “remote” ballots are accepted during this time frame as well to accommodate the many American who live in places where DA is not physically present.
  • Members of Democrats Abroad can vote in the Global Presidential Primary for their choice for president, but they can also vote “down ticket” via absentee ballot in their home state primary (for US Senate, US House, local tax assessor, etc.), as long as they pledge not to vote again for a presidential candidate. This allows students and newly situated residents to participate more easily during primary season.

In 2004, DA hosted a caucus, a largely antiquated and undemocratic form of elections. Since then, voter turnout for the global primary has increased 15-fold. And despite non-restrictive voting procedures, there has been little concern for voter fraud.

A strong, accessible and truly representative party and primary system is critical for those living abroad. Since expats are dispersed across the globe, there are neither the resources nor personnel to have polling locations within commuting distance for every citizen. Online and absentee voting measures therefore allow for equal access to the vote.

Moreover, since the issues confronting an expat are drastically different from an ordinary citizen, Democrats Abroad plays a particularly critical role; it is the only institutional body equipped to understand and advocate for these concerns. Many expat voters choose to participate in the global primary, as opposed to their state primaries, for this reason: the more participation in DA, the more influence it has within the DNC, and therefore the more likely expat concerns are heard.

Currently the No. 1 policy issue for Americans abroad is the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, known as FATCA. Designed to catch the “fat cats” who hide their wealth in offshore tax havens, this law has had many unintended consequences for the expat community: people have had their bank accounts closed, their mortgages rescinded and suddenly find themselves slammed with huge fees and penalties for non-compliance. So, this year, Democrats Abroad worked diligently to educate both the campaigns of Sanders and Hillary Clinton about this issue. The lobbying worked: a FATCA reform plank is now included in the party’s platform.

American expats did not always enjoy meaningful representation.

Party politics is messy and often inefficient. And in today’s political climate, one filled with distrust and apathy, ensuring representation and active participation is more important than ever. Democrats Abroad serves as a very successful model for how other state parties can reinvigorate faith in the party.

Adopting same-day registration for primary elections, using “remote” ballots to guarantee more participation, and intriguingly, limiting the superdelegates’ votes to just one-half of a pledged delegates’ vote are all concrete reforms that the party could adopt to restore trust with the grass roots.

American expats did not always enjoy meaningful representation.

For the majority of the 20th century, there was no party apparatus abroad. It was only in 1964 when Democrats in London and Paris began to politically organize, coordinating a fundraising campaign for Lyndon Johnson, that the foundation for what would become Democrats Abroad was created.

While fundraising proved successful, there was never a guaranteed right to an overseas absentee ballot. So, after a decade of organizing, expats pressured President Gerald Ford to sign the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act of 1975, which gave Americans abroad this right. In the following year, committees of Democrats Abroad in a number of countries held elections to choose delegates to the 1976 convention that nominated Jimmy Carter for the presidency. It was a first, small step that led eventually to today’s Global Presidential Primary.

If there is a lesson in all of this, it is that winning representation and creating well-functioning elections takes time and effort. This means engaged citizens pushing for democratic innovations. For Democrats Abroad, the next step will be to get paid staff operational resources, and they’re entertaining the possibility of a congressional delegate (as DC has) to represent its interests in the US Capitol. For the national Democratic Party, activists and party officials must work together to empower all voters and better represent the party’s members, no matter where they live.

Adam Eichen

Adam Eichen is a member of the Democracy Matters Board of Directors and a Fellow at the Small Planet Institute, where he is working on a book on the Democracy Movement with founder Frances Moore Lappé. He served as the deputy communications director for Democracy Spring. Follow him on Twitter: @adameichen.

Bob Vallier

Bob Vallier is the secretary of Democrats Abroad France, volunteering a lot of hours to get out the expatriate vote and organize political activities for Americans in Paris. When he's not busy being a party apparatchik, he moonlights as a professor of philosophy and humanities at Sciences-Po and various study abroad programs in Paris, getting those students to vote from abroad too.