Being the 51st state: on the Democrats Abroad primary

US primary season spilled out across the world, as the citizens overseas voted in their very own primary.

Carlos Butkevicius
10 March 2016

Larry Sanders (brother of Bernie) addressing Democrats Abroad in Edinburgh

Have you ever experienced that feeling of being far away from home, in another country or on another continent, during an important family holiday? And how it teaches appreciation for your close ones, even with the little holiday things you used to hate? And then the brief, but oh-so-real, joy of the 5-minute Skype call, you on one end, and all of them on the other?

For well over 200,000 Americans, the UK is their permanent or temporary abode. And whether we choose to call it home or a stop, there is no escaping the fact that the place where it all started is back across the ocean, somewhere in a Midwestern town, sun-scorched suburbs of the Southwest, or an anonymous street in the Big Apple.

Just as you appreciate more that which you no longer have, as an expat you often gain a deeper and more committed attachment to your home country as it evolves into a conscious identity from the accident of fate is used to be. And what better way to feel connected to America than through civic engagement.

Right now, from Iowa to South Carolina, and from Nevada to Tennessee, America is buzzing with political excitement. Possibly more so than during any other election in recent years. The Republicans have spawned a clear frontrunner that frightens even their fellow party members. Meanwhile, the two Democrat candidates, either of whom would defeat Mr. Trump in the general election, are in the midst of a highly engaging and intelligent fight for the hearts of left and center voters. It is an unpredictable election year, and the suspense is growing.

But what about those Americans who find themselves far away from it all, in the United Kingdom, as the election year unfolds? While not typically thought of as an American tradition, the US system of elections, as well as the emotional experience surrounding it, is indeed unique to America. And for all its goods and ills, the sheer amount of civic engagement and in-depth political reflection generated by any given presidential election season is probably unparalleled in the world. For us American expats, life abroad brings a truly unique perspective on both American domestic and foreign policies. Yet how do we manage to stay involved? How do we partake in that all-American excitement, that spirit of inclusive volunteerism and those do-or-die efforts with which the American democracy charms the world every four to eight years?

For Republicans, the options are limited to staying in touch via the Internet and voting absentee through their state. However, the Democratic Party has Democrats Abroad, which it recognizes as the “51st state” constituent of the overall national party. For many Democrat Americans in the UK and worldwide, Democrats Abroad is how they stay on top of American politics and engage in civic efforts. Through Democrats Abroad, Americans come together for debate watches, political discussions, and American holiday celebrations. It may be a party organization, but for many members it is much more than this – Democrats Abroad is a way to cultivate American identity.

And Democrat expats are not just a hypothetical “51st state”! Much like the differences between other states, American expats have their very own culture and set of prominent political issues: oppressive foreign bank account reporting liabilities resulting in denial of financial services, an unparalleled citizenship-based taxation subjecting them to dual liabilities, threat of arbitrary passport revocation while abroad for non-compliance with the tax code, lack of an Americans Abroad Committee in Congress to review draft legislation, and many similar concerns.

Yet, most importantly, in election years, such as this, members of Democrats Abroad sends its very own delegates to the Democratic National Convention, this year to be held in Philadelphia in July, which nominates the party’s presidential candidate. Like any other American state party, to determine who their delegates will vote for, Democrats Abroad holds an internal election, the Global Presidential Primary.

For many thousands of American expats, this is a welcome chance to vote abroad in-person. For some others, this may be the only chance to vote. In the case of American citizens who have never lived in the US, only some states allow registration through an American parent’s former state. Meanwhile, the state of Democrats Abroad welcomes anyone who is a US citizen residing abroad.

Befitting of America, the scale of the Global Presidential Primary is monumental. Unlike that of any other state, this primary lasts more than just a day. A whole eight days, in fact. This year, voting began at midnight on Super Tuesday in Wellington, New Zealand (i.e. on the previous Monday at 6am DC time and 11am UK time). 104 voting centers in 39 countries welcomed voters in person, while a dedicated team worked around the clock, processing remote ballots being received mostly by email (but also fax and post).

And Democrats Abroad is, along with Michigan, one of only two state committees whose primary has attracted more voters than in 2008.

Right here in the UK, seven polling places were organized all across the island: in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and St Andrews. Through our Scotland Chapter, I myself had the honor to be involved in polling place volunteer work north of the border. Meanwhile, down in England, one of the polling places received a visit – and a ballot – from Larry Sanders, a long-time resident of Oxford and the brother of one of the presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders.

Just by organizing better this year than before and by making ourselves heard louder than in the past, the state of Democrats Abroad has become a force to be reckoned with. Presidential candidates and their campaigns have talked to us by videoconference, sent in their written positions, and provided detailed answers about issues that concern us. In fact, I doubt that the issues of any physical state back in the US have received such complete and focused attention. And what a feeling it is to know that we have achieved this simply through concerted civic enthusiasm!

Sure, many countries allow their citizens abroad to vote, with most governments handling this process via their worldwide network of embassies and consulates or by mail. But the Global Presidential Primary is not run by any government. We are all Democratic Party volunteers. I am confident in saying that the Democrats Abroad Global Presidential Primary is the most extensive electoral civic effort in the world. While many Republican state governments are doing all they can to limit access to elections, we Democratic American expats, in the true spirit of our party, are chipping in every little we can to extend the franchise to as many of our countrymen as possible.

It has been an unbelievable experience to witness the unrelenting efforts, unselfish civic pride, and nothing-is-too-much-to-ask attitude among my fellow volunteers. There is something about the grassroots way we do things in America that rings so true when I reflect on my experience at the Global Presidential Primary. It is that same American optimism and embrace of challenges, which led our ancestors – be it parents or who-knows-how-many-times-great-grandparents – across the ocean and into the unknown, armed only with incurable optimism and steadfast hope, that I have witnessed in full blossom during the week-long Global Presidential Primary.

It is not yet over, but for me, and for many of my fellow volunteers, this has already proved to be one of the proudest and most hands-on ways in which we have contributed to the future of the American republic and its democracy. Here in Scotland, just a small handful of us, with a bare-bones donations-based budget, were able to turn out around 430 in-person voters, many of whom may not have otherwise had the chance to take part in the world’s most spectacular exercise of democracy that is the American election season.

In Edinburgh as in St Andrews, Americans mingled outside of voting centers, waiting for them to open. Once start of polling was announced, both the voters, coming in a steady stream, and us volunteers found ourselves making American democracy happen in the most American, grassroots way possible, just how it was meant to be. With Americana on the walls and American accents filling the room, there was no doubt that we had all come together to recreate a little slice of America. No one rushed to leave; many stood around conversing with volunteers and fellow voters, at the same time strangers and genuine allies. It is hard to imagine an American polling place without flag-themed “I voted” stickers, but being in the UK we had to make do with tiny little toothpick US flags, tokens of “thank you – we just made this happen together”.

Much like the family holiday Skype call, when you suddenly realize how much you long to be at their dinner table even if it involves having to listen to the crazy cousin, the experience of volunteering from overseas during this American election season, even with all of the embarrassing Trump moments it brings, has allowed me to contribute my share in a more genuine way and experience a deeper civic commitment to American democracy than on many other occasions, even back in the States. I have no doubt that many others in Democrats Abroad share this sentiment.

The results of the Democrats Abroad primary will be announced on the 21st of March

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