Voters from the 51st US state

22nd June 2004, Comments 0 comments

The 2000 Presidential election was decided by absentee votes. And so could this year's poll. As Simon Payn reports, never before have America's political parties wooed expat voters with such intensity.

American expats have never felt so wanted — or so powerful.

George Bush

President Bush won by 537 votes in Florida

With the US presidential election less than six months away, both Republicans and Democrats are working hard to secure expat votes.

This massive surge in activity is because many people believe expats could decide the election this year.

Even former Vice President Dan Quayle thinks so.

He reminded the German chapter of Republicans Abroad in April how much the absentee vote (the ballot papers coming in mainly from abroad) mattered in the pivotal state of Florida in 2000.

"It was the absentee votes that turned the tide in Florida. Every vote counts. We need to get the word out," he said.

The 2000 vote was the closest in American history, with George W Bush gaining a margin of 537 votes in the crucial Florida count.

With around six million Americans living abroad, there are enough voters to make up a 51st state. But US voters are registered in the county and state in which they last lived. And it was the absentee votes (and the way they were counted) that made the difference in the crucial states in 2000.

*quote1*An investigation published by The New York Times in July 2001, eight months after the poll, found that overseas ballots — the only votes that could legally be received and counted after election day — were judged by markedly different standards, depending on where they were counted.

That was because the Bush team, anxious to ensure their man won a precariously balanced race, pushed to count the maximum number of overseas ballots in counties won by Bush while seeking to disqualify overseas ballots in counties won by Democrat challenger Al Gore, according to The New York Times.

Florida officials, the newspaper found, accepted hundreds of overseas ballots that failed to comply with state laws — 680 questionable votes that had missing postmarks, were postmarked after the election, were without witness signatures or were mailed from towns and cities within the United States. Even some ballots from electors who had voted twice.

If the state's election laws had been strictly enforced, all these votes would have been disqualified.

The push provided an effective counterweight to the Gore team's own push for manual recounts in mainly Democratic states in southern Florida.

The study found no evidence of vote fraud in the 2000 election. But the closeness of the race and the importance of the expat vote have made a lot of people sit up and take notice of Americans living abroad.

Registration drives

Both Republicans and Democrats are pushing to get expats to register to vote. But it seems to be the anti-Bush groups that are really making waves.

In the past year, a clutch of small-scale groups have started campaigns to get expat voters to register - most in the hope that these reluctant voters will support Democrat candidate John Kerry.

Perhaps none more so than American Voices Abroad which is aiming to collect 100,000 pledges from US citizens rejecting the Patriot Act (the legislation enacted following the September 11 terror attacks) and what it calls the "doctrine of pre-emptive war" - the hawkish policy of the US administration that has led to action in Iraq and threats of military intervention elsewhere in the world.

Brian Thomas, political adviser to AVA, says the group is non-partisan, and that there are voters in the Republican Party who oppose these two policies. But he admits that the group will attract more Democrat and independent votes.

John Kerry

Some campaigners are pushing for Democrat candidate John Kerry

"Independent votes will be a new political force," he says.

"It's really the first time Americans in Europe have organised themselves outside of the traditional two-party structure, filling a political niche and responding to political needs the party structure in the US isn't filling. This is mirrored in the US by hundreds of political movements."

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