London Calling: How Americans Abroad Vote And Stay Engaged With The Election

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“Bare-knuckle him,” Claire Chapwell, whose Ohio vote counts for so much in this election and has lived in London since 2008, encouraged Barack Obama. “Channel your inner Clinton.”

If the 6.3 million Americans who lived overseas were the 51st state, it would be the 18th largest in the US. Of that number, 250,000 live in the United Kingdom and around 150 met up on Wednesday to watch the second presidential debate. Just because they are far from home does not mean they have stopped caring about who lives in the White House.

As Democrats in London gathered together hoping to see Barack Obama equal the score with Mitt Romney on a large cinema-style screen, Rob Carolina, the chair of Democrats Abroad in Britain, explained to The Huffington Post UK the ability of Americans far from home to stay in touch with campaigns had been transformed.

“It’s difficult, but not as difficult as it used to be,” he said. “The typical horror story that people would tell as recently as 15-20 years ago was that people would request ballots and have it arrive the day after the election is over.

“Once upon a time it was very difficult and very time consuming for Americans overseas to figure out even how to engage with the election.

“There was no Internet. The telecommunications revolution has made our job possible. Democrats Abroad has been around since 1964 but it has really blossomed in the last 10 years into an organization that engages in retail politics.”

The British branch of Democrats Abroad, an official arm of the party, now has a campaign office in London from where volunteers encourage ex-pat Americans to vote.

“The idea of opening US election campaign office outside the territorial United States sounds slightly off,” Carolina admitted. “But we’ve got volunteers in there all day, we’re phone banking and calling Democrats in the UK and other places round the world, reminding them how to get their ballots and vote.”

Clearly keen to be seen not just as a social club where people can hang out and drink beer together, the London operation stresses the importance of overseas votes.

Three Democratic Senators, Jim Webb (D,VA) Mark Begich (D-AK) and Al Franken (D-Mn) would not have been elected if overseas Democrats had not participated. Without them the Democrats would not control the Senate.

And the Top 10 states with the most voters abroad include Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania – three crucial swing states.

Despite all the advances in technology, one barrier to participation remains insurmountable; time zones. The crucial second presidential debate was held at 9pm Eastern Time, 2am in London. And apart from a dedicated few, most were unable, if not unwilling, to stay awake.

The Democrats met, fittingly, at the home the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in central London on Wednesday evening, 24 hours after the debate took place, to watch Obama Vs. Romney. The majority had tried their best to avoid coverage of the clash, like football fans who has recorded the game to watch later, although the yawns of some betrayed their attempts to fight off sleep in the early hours to watch it live.

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Whooping and cheering in a way only Americans can while watching a cinema screen, the heavily partisan crowd were pleased with their man’s performance. Disappointed by the president’s passive approach to the first debate, the more aggressive Obama was, the better.

However with the polls narrowing many clearly wanted to see Obama land a knockout blow.

Chapwell, who wants to see more “straight forward language” from both Obama and Romney in the next debate, points to Clinton as the ideal debater.

Recalling the former president’s recent demolition of a Republican opponent on Fox News, she said she wants to see more “pow, pow, pow” from Obama, as she mimes a boxer being pummeled by a unforgiving opponent.

However her friend, Herman, who has lived in Britain for a quarter of a century, was far more pleased by the president’s performance. “So much better,” he said with relief.

And his assessment appeared to be the consensus. Pleased, but mostly relieved. Despite the grumbles over specifics, the crowd, who before the screening had preferred to talk about Joe Biden’s debate performance than Obama’s first attempt, was happy with what they saw.

Carolina admitted that his gang of Americans in Britain found the first debate “very surprising”. And just as Republicans hit out at Candy Crowley for her handling of the contest, he was critical of how Jim Lehrer martialed the first.

“Not least because we were kind of waiting for the moderator to moderate,” he said. “I have a great deal of respect for Jim Lehrer. I don’t want to sound awful. He’s a great guy and tremendous journalist.”

“I think that the tone of the first debate surprised people. If you read the transcript basically we’ve got fact and arguments on our side but it’s turning into an election where facts have become very much secondary to the campaign. Mr Romney seems to be able to run a campaign without them.”

Of course debates are not read off a page and are as much contests of manner and body language as content.

Carolina enjoyed the “more vigorous debating style” Obama deployed on Tuesday night.

“Not only did we see president Obama in full flow and in good form. We saw Mr Romney really being confronted by something he wasn’t expecting, which is someone who is prepared to call him out on his lack of specifics.

“I think he did get the pitch right, it was a very rigorous exchange. Vice president Biden pitched his debate right even though he took some criticisms for his tone.”

Carolina said he has heard Biden compared to an “angry uncle” after his aggressive jabbing of Ryan. “I said no, he kind of reminds me of your angry uncle being lied to be a vacuum salesman for 90 minutes. I really don’t know how you can sit next to someone telling that many whoppers and not get upset.”

“I think the vice president did a great job and got people really enthusiastic and I think the president did a great job in this debate.”

It’s hard to tell what the partisan make-up of Americans in Britain is. But Carolina said his “sense” is that the Democrats are in the majority. Whether that is a reflection of the British people's preference for Obama or not is unknowable, but his election in 2008 made one eager debate watcher "less embarrassed" to be an American abroad.

Carolina argued: “I would say that there’s a strong majority of American citizens in the UK who are predisposed to vote for a Democratic candidate."

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Americans living outside the US do not vote as a bloc, there is no collective overseas Electoral College vote, rather they cast their ballots from overseas and are counted in their home states. The Democrats gathered to watch Obama take on Romney in London were from across the States, from New York, to Idaho and a few enthusiastic swing-state superstars from Ohio.

Some have been in the country for as little as a month, others have lived in the UK for over 25 years while many with accents indistinguishable from an Englishman have lived the entire lives outside the US.

“I’ve met people who have never lived in the America,” Carolina explains. “I met a guy who said; ‘my father was a GI in WWII and I’ve held a US passport since I was born but I’ve never lived there’.”

But how important is the voice of the overseas voter really? Are the overseas branches of both the Democrats and the Republicans merely playing politics, consigned to he sidelines while the real action happens back home? “I think it is growing in importance. The challenge that we had historically is the ability to participate in elections from overseas was limited, it was was difficult, time consuming and expensive. As a result people began to become alienated from the US political process.

“Not because they ceased to be Americans, but its because 20 years ago a phone call to Washington DC cost two dollars a minute, people who moved here in the 80s would have paid 10 dollars a minute. In that kind of environment you can just pick up the phone and ask an election officer where your ballot is."

Other countries that have large ex-pat communities approach it in different ways. France recently introduced overseas MPs, such as Corinne Narassiguin who represents the North American French in Paris and Axelle Lemaire who is the MP for French people in North Europe, the region that includes Britain.

Would such a system work for overseas Americans? After all, Americans living together in London arguably share more common concerns and needs with each other than they do with each of their individual own home states.

“It’s growing [support],” Caroline said. “But I don’t see a presidential candidate specifically courting the overseas vote.

“There are some people within the oversea American community who are pushing for a similar kind of arrangement, to have non-voting delegates in the US House of Representatives. “

However the Democratic Party does not officially support that idea. And would many ambitious American politicians really want to have (D-Europe) after their name?

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