Cross-posted from the Flophouse. Your mileage may vary on this one. After I posted it I thought of at least two reasons some folks should not try to vote in the 2012 election: Accidental Americans who do not acknowledge that the US has sovereignty over them and those who are in the process of renouncing/relinquishing. But for everyone else, I wanted to reply to all the reasons I’ve listened to over the years for not voting in U.S. elections – reasons that frankly just don’t make much sense anymore. In particular this strange idea that we may have a legal right to vote there but not a moral one. Huh? If the U.S. is going to try to hold us to obligations of U.S. citizenship in our host countries, then we should have our say too even if our interests are at odds with those of the homelanders. And if they don’t like that then they should keep their hands and their laws well within the boundaries of the U.S.
A few days ago I tried to make a contribution to a political campaign in the U.S. and was stymied by their on-line software that didn’t like my foreign address and wouldn’t take my home phone number (French format + 33 1…). If this had happened a few years ago I probably would have given up in disgust but this time around I decided I wasn’t going to let it go. So I wrote them an email and I explained that I was one of millions of Americans abroad and gently proposed that they look at their software and make it more expat-friendly. In the meantime I asked for a workaround so that I could send them money and participate in the American political process just like Americans in the homeland.
To their credit they got right back to me and started working on a fix. But one email from a staff member set me back on my heels. He thanked me for my support but said that in his travels he had met communities of Americans abroad and his experience was that none of them ever showed any interest in voting in the U.S. much less in making a contribution to a campaign.
Let’s be honest and admit that there is some truth to what he said. The reasons vary but, yes, out of the estimated 6-7 millions Americans abroad only a small percentage ever cast votes. The Overseas Vote Foundation has this excellent report from 2010 which attempted to analyze the number of Americans abroad who are eligible to vote and how many actually succeeded in the 2008 election. Their conclusion?
If voter turnout is defined as the number of people who attempted to vote (total ballots submitted for counting or 273,408) divided by the total population (approximately 4 million), approximately 6.8 percent of the overseas civilian population attempted to participate and were successful in doing so.
That’s pathetic. But does this indicate a lack of interest or outright disenfranchisement? Both. Once an expatriate has been abroad for 10, 15, 20 years he/she may no longer be particularly well-informed about local politics (remember that Americans abroad vote from the U.S. state where they last resided regardless of how many years they’ve been abroad). Then there is the matter of the rather byzantine procedures that U.S. states had for overseas voters that made registering and casting a ballot in the U.S. from abroad complex and rather painful. Interest wanes when confronted with a process that is not terribly friendly and hard to understand. To add insult to injury, many of those who did navigate the process in 2008 saw their ballots rejected. And finally, there is one group of Americans citizens abroad who actually are unable to vote at all in many cases in the U.S.: American citizens born abroad and living abroad. That’s right, not all U.S. states allow them to vote at all even though these U.S. citizens are required to pay U.S. taxes and could be liable for a military draft. Homelanders can bluster all they want about getting Americans abroad to “pay their faire share in taxes,” but this is flat-out taxation without any representation and I fail to see on what planet this constitutes “fair.”
All this is very disheartening but there are some blue skies on the horizon and, I think, some very good reasons for Americans abroad to vote in 2012. Here are my responses to some of the rationales I’ve heard from my compatriots abroad for not voting in U.S. elections. If you have a problem with my reasoning, please feel free to disagree. This is a topic worth debating.
They’ll find me: Many Americans abroad are struggling with the compliance dilemma. As people become aware of the U.S. tax and reporting requirements, and realize that they are potentially in a lot of trouble, they are afraid to vote because they think that by doing so this will give the U.S. government (the IRS) a heads-up. My .02 on this is that, with FATCA coming on-line in 2013, they will find you in any case with the help of your host country. I suppose it is possible to do a deep-dive: close your bank accounts, transfer your money to a spouse, live on cash, give up your career/business and hide in a rural area, let your U.S. passport lapse and avoid the local U.S. Embassy as if it were plague-infested territory and so on. Some people will undoubtedly go that route but, personally, I don’t find any of that to be terribly congenial. I respectfully suggest that the time for sticking our heads in the sand and hoping we will be left alone has come and gone, my friends. So instead of limiting our options, let’s expand them by registering to vote, casting our ballots and raising an unholy stink if the states try to disenfranchise us.
Local politicians in the U.S. don’t care about my overseas vote: Maybe we need to start giving them a reason to care. Look, if we have any hope of getting some of this nonsense corrected, we must start flexing our muscles and showing the homelanders that not only do we care, but we will vote and punish local politicians that don’t take our interests into account. The staff of the political campaign I mentioned in a previous paragraph is now aware that there is a strange middle-aged American lady in Versailles, France who is not only registered to vote (and wants to vote for their candidate) but cares enough to throw some cash their way. If enough of us do this, we can raise awareness and get our issues on the agenda. Local politicians in the U.S. may not understand why so many of us live abroad but they do understand two basic things: dollars and votes (in that order). If we can start speaking their language, perhaps we will finally get some traction for the things we care about.
My vote won’t count because there are too few of us voting from abroad: Yes, the system is stacked against us in some ways since we have to vote in the last state we resided in and some say we lack effective representation. But instead of moaning about how ridiculous this is, let’s look at the opportunities inherent in this rather perverse situation. Many elections these days in the U.S. are decided by an incredibly small margin. Have a look at this video produced by Democrats Abroad:
In all these races just a few votes made the difference. This means that even a small number of votes from abroad could have some serious consequences for the U.S. political scene in 2012. And think how much fun it would be if in 2012 the expat vote turned a few key races in the U.S. around and made some of those U.S. politicians that have been maligning us from their cushy Washington offices into very unhappy ex-senators and representatives.
I’ve tried to vote in the past from abroad and it’s just too darn complicated: Meet the 2009 MOVE Act (Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act). It is now much easier to vote from abroad. How easy? Well, I tested it using this fine on-line overseas voter registration tool provided by the Overseas Vote Foundation and it was a no-brainer. Took me less than 15 minutes and a trip to my local post office. I was rewarded just a few weeks later when I received my official voter registration card from King County Elections in Renton, Washington, USA. Since then I have also received follow-up material asking me, among other things, if I would prefer to vote on-line or via mail (paper absentee ballot) from the comfort of my home here in Versailles, France. Not too shabby. So give it a shot and, if you are so inclined, think about making a contribution to the Overseas Vote Foundation. This is a non-partisan foundation that is devoted to one thing – making it possible for Americans abroad to vote in U.S. elections. They are good folks and deserve support for their efforts.
Last comment and this is a tough one that I’ve struggled with for years. Given that we do not live in the U.S. and many of us haven’t darkened the doors of our supposed “states of residence” for years, is it moral for us to cast votes in local elections. After all, for the most part, we are not subject to the consequences of that vote. Obamacare could be overturned tomorrow, U.S. Social Security could be privatized in a few years, Federal money flowing to the states could be cut off or reduced, and the impact on me personally would be zero. I derive no benefits from any of the above though I do have family stateside that does depend on these things.
After a lot of reflection, this is my answer: If the United States of America is going to exert its sovereignty over us by requiring us to pay taxes and file reams of paperwork from abroad in order to comply with a byzantine tax code and onerous reporting requirements voted into law by those local politicians then, yes, Americans abroad have every right to vote in U.S. elections. Granted, our interests may diverge substantially from homelanders’ interests but that fundamentally changes nothing.
We are U.S. citizens and if we are going to held to what they consider to be the responsibilities of that citizenship then we have the legal and moral right to get into the political game and vote for things we care about and for politicians who will advance our interests which are just as valid and important as any homelander’s interests even if we haven’t set one foot in the U.S. in the last 40 years. End of story.
@Blaze — Thanks: you’ve said exactly what I feel. I have dual-citizen friends who tried to convince me to vote in the 2008 election. I told them — and believed absolutely at the time — that I had voluntarily and irrevocably forfeited any claim to American citizenship by choosing to live in Canada as a Canadian at a time when the U.S. did not recognize dual citizenship. Just as much to the point, I didn’t want to vote. Of course I was interested in the election; a good proportion of the world was. But my interest was strictly that of a curious outsider. I live in Canada, I’m fully committed to being Canadian, and I have no interest in voting in a foreign country. And even if I did want to vote in another country, it wouldn’t be the U.S.: my mother was born British (though she became Canadian when she was still a minor), and I lived in the U.K. for several years in my late 20s / early 30s and still visit regularly. (I’ve spent fewer than 72 hours of the last 15 years in the U.S.) Fortunately, however, the U.K. doesn’t insist that it has lifelong claims on foreign citizens with tenuous connections to it! @Victoria — a very interesting article. I always enjoy your posts, and I do appreciate that you made clear that you’re not talking to accidental Americans.
*I wonder if we send me ballots without marking any candidate will send a message. Blaze, I understand. Perhaps we are fighting a lose battle and for the ones who can chose, renouncing or relinquishing (what is the difference) is the way to go. But for the ones who for one reason or another remain citizens, we must fight the best we can as we are trying to do. The only thing that discourages me is the enormous silent majority among us. I fail to understand. In my dreams ACA would have at least one million members!
@Markpinetree, ACA and AARO have a real problem – very few Americans Abroad know they exist. AARO is actually based in Paris and yet, in 20 years, I can count on one hand the number of expats/long-term residents who’ve even heard of them. Those few who have aren’t sure if they want to join (what good is it to me?) and if they should join ACA or AARO. Not sure how this could be accomplished but I think both need someone(s) who understand marketing and can organize an outreach program. But (and this is just my .02 here) they tread lightly and do not seem to want to do anything that would get the folks in Washington mad at them (i.e. they are committed to working within the system). Are they effective? I talked to one person who had this criticism: their ideas are good but they haven’t mastered the art of the soundbite and they haven’t done their groundwork. Politicians in the U.S. are not going to win votes by supporting expats right now so groups like ACA and AARO need to do the research, get some serious reports showing how supporting expats is good for America and start working the US media more so that U.S. politicians can have some political cover when they are asked to support us. That sounds like sensible advice to me – I just don’t know if they have the budgets.
I have wondered more than once if the time is not ripe to create another organization that is a bit more into direct action, willing to be critical and to take stands that won’t necessarily win over the folks in Washington (those scorecards, for example, would be a very fine shot across the bow) but could more effectively channel some of the rage The advantage would be that this organization by being a bit on the radical side could make ACA and AARO look positively reasonable by comparison. I don’t see the ACA, for example, holding demonstrations in front of the embassies. The disadvantage of course is that another organization would make us even more fractured and potentially divide those willing to act among yet another organization.
@Mark Twain, Yes, too bad we can’t “voter blanc.” But, hey, if we don’t like the current crop of US pols (and everything indicates that the homelanders aren’t too thrilled with them either) then let’s look around for alternatives. In my own state of residence I went looking for an alternative to Cantwell (signer of FATCA) and found her opponent. Now I have no idea how this fellow would vote on our issues BUT he has a passport, he has worked and lived extensively abroad and he has a British wife and a dual citizen child. Sounds promising to me. At least he has a clue about what it means to live outside the U.S. Cantwell clearly doesn’t.
@victoria- I think that the fact that there is any member of the Federal government who does not have a passport should be a national embarassment. The lack of a passport means that these guys can’t even visit Canada and Mexico, who are the U.S.’s biggest trading partners. What kind of super power has politicians who can’t travel abroad? How do these guys plan on making decisions about America’s involvement in a world that they know nothing about?
*I have been bumping around on all the contact sites of all of our political stars, trying to get one of them to say something about FATCA. No luck. I will try Bill Nelson’s competitor next.
*Victoria and all. You make very good points. I am so glad that this Society is here so that we can exchange ideas. If necessary we should contribute for it to remain doing this excellent job. Come to think about things I believe we could invite not only US persons abroad, but also dual citizens and why not resident aliens (Greencarders) who also pay taxes and have no representation. You know, dual citizens and greencarders even when living in the USA now have to file FBARS and IRS Returns with what they earn back home. I understand that if someone becomes and US citizen or a resident alien and have some property in their home country, they day they sell this property which they bought before moving to the US, they will pay capital gains to the USA. Every one who applies to a Green Card should be warned of things like that, don´t you think?
Then first I think we should encourage the greencarders and dual citizens, even if they are living in the USA, to participate in this Society and also in ACA.
I belong to both ACA and AARO. AARO seems to be more local, for Americans Living in France.They do represent us in a sense but they work within the system, trying to change it. It seems for instance that AARO was able to allow Americans Living in France not to pay US Income Tax on their French Pensions.
I think ACA is more active. I like to think that if they had 1 million members ($$$) they could do more but I see what you say, perhaps they need to market themselves better for these people that I mentioned above. I am going to make this suggestion to them. As a matter of fact I will copy them this message.
ACA could help us to see in which States our absentee votes could make a difference. They could send questionnaires to the candidates and then advise us where our votes would be more important. Things like this. The mere existence of this questionnaire will call the attention of the candidates to us.
Anyway, I share your frustration. If we indeed are on the millions and we include Americans, Dual Citizens and Greencarders we perhaps could have a stronger voice.
Well, thank you all for being here. You all became very important to me. Thanks Petro for providing this to us,
I honestly just don’t bother. It’s not worth the hassle, the options are all crap as it is anyways. The last time I bothered, it just resulted in jury duty letters, scary letters from the state demanding taxes and penalties, and it took about a month to get it all sorted out. I honestly do not know why the embassy can’t be even a little useful in this matter. As it stands now, it’s essentially a poll tax and opens me up to liabilities and harassment.
The ACA is useless and crap as well. The congresspeople who claim affiliation don’t hesitate for an instant to throw us under the bus if it makes them look good at home. We don’t have a say in anything really. Just lump us all in as DC residents or something and be done with it. Or set actual federal election standards that are uniform to put an end to this shitfest. Is this really SO hard to do?
*Anyone registered in Florida? Connie Mack voted nay on FATCA in the House, and is now running against Bill Nelson who voted yes on FATCA in the Senate.
I’ll be the scrooge here. I’ve never voted in my life, and I doubt that any vote in THAT country will make a difference (Florida recount, anybody?). They can’t give me a CLN fast enough!
Thank you for highlighting that article link and for your contributions here. I found the ideas in it very persuasively written – and helps us to make the case for the contributions those outside the US make to the country – if not forced to renounce by the senseless US oppression of those deemed US citizens, living abroad.
That article from the Atlantic ( http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/07/to-make-america-great-again-we-need-to-leave-the-country/259653/) underscored what @RogerConklin has told us about why the US should see that sending people abroad is important to homeland success and global competition – and why it should see the domestic advantage in changing things to make it possible for those who choose to remain US citizens abroad (or who can’t renounce) to live normal lives ‘abroad’ without the current draconian and confiscatory tax and banking laws. This article http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/americas-great-passport-divide/72399/ also illustrates the divide in the US between those who have passports, and those who don’t. It analyzes that by state and other factors. This is what we are up against in getting US residents to understand our issues – when most don’t have a passport and don’t see the need for one – they have no intention of ever going outside the US for any reason. If most US politicians don’t have one, (“The U.S. is, for too many, the only country that matters; experiences anywhere else are irrelevant . . . or worse. Remember, we have many members of Congress who boast they have no passport.” http://www.aspeninstitute.org/news/2012/07/12/elliot-gerson-addresses-global-scholars-symposium-oxford ) then they don’t care if they tie IRS deemed tax non-compliance with the right to travel – they have never had one, and also have no compunction about punishing – without due process – anyone who might need one
( http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/no-taxes-no-travel-why-the-irs-wants-the-right-to-seize-your-passport/255940/ ).
For those who are inclined, or who are debating the wisdom of voting in this next election, you might be interested to see this illustration of the US ‘passport divide’ as an indicator of areas where the residents would be much less likely to have any interest or clue about life abroad; ” There are Red States and Blue States, rich states and poor states, and Bible and Rust-belt states. But now we must add Globe-trotting and Stay-at-home states to that list
too — that is, according to new data on the percentage of Americans who have a passport. The map below — which has been getting a lot of attention on-line (via Grey’s Blog) — charts the trend for the fifty states“
@markpinetree- I can tell you that the U.S. never once at his immigration interview mentioned to my former pastor that his Canadian financial assets would be subject to U.S. taxation and reporting rules. I was the one who had to tell him this via email. Thankfully I told him in time so that he could comply with the filing requirements.
This is also why I think that it is such a joke when you have Republicans like Romney talking about attaching a green card to the diploma of every foreign graduate student who has studied in one of the areas of science, technology, engineering, math (STEM). Giving them a green card without telling them about the tax reporting traps is blatantly misleading and more akin to fraudulent misrepresentation. Websites are required to give more disclosure than the Federal government is doing itself.
@Badger, great link to the passport info. Yep, this is a real barrier when we try to explain the issues. Folks who don’t want or need a passport are not going to be at all sympathetic to those who have them much less those who “slip the leash.”
And for those of you who’ve written and expression frustration and disgust with the idea of voting – I hear you and there are days when I just want to give up. Is this really worth it?
And then I got this email and a phone call from one of the readers of the Flophouse. She’s an American married to a French and she lives less than 5 miles away from me. We spent over an hour on the phone swapping stories. To my knowledge she doesn’t post or write letters but she is following what’s going on. It was a major morale booster for me and really gave me a shot of energy to sit down and write a post (today’s Flophouse offering is on Diaspora Engagement Policies). And she’s going to vote – yeah! 🙂
Glad to read your thoughts (Flophouse and here), and the debates about this, as my stomach churns now, at anything related to the US; so even just the idea of voting this year is making me feel nauseous.
Hearing a pitch made to a local group, for why we should just swallow what is happening to us, and ignore the unjust and unwarranted costs (mental, physical, monetary) to vote for the party that is implementing it made me so angry I wanted to vomit. I will never be the same and neither will my family. Only the virtual community here at IBS gives me any energy to continue to try and change things. The lack of knowledge and media coverage on our issues is so skewed or lacking that one would think it was deliberate.
@badger, @Victoria, @Markpinetree,
I have to agree with badger. Voting the one and only time in the last U.S. election (after I had made the other mistakes of not getting advice from an immigration lawyer before doing back US income tax returns and FBARs) another thing I did to cement myself back into the US. I don’t want to do anything else to further negate things, especially I don’t feel it would have any effect. Soon I will be renouncing.
Just a P.S.
@all, for those who intend to remain US citizens, then voting from abroad, in general probably makes sense – it’s one of the only rights – (other than the very well enforced and unwanted ‘right’ to be taxed and penalized!) that (some) ‘abroad’ have.
Would be cautious also to research the states – (re @Dan’s comment re NY?) that might try to impose jury duty or state-tax liabilities (California?) based on voter registration from abroad.
I’m not trying to discourage anyone from voting. Just having a lot of trouble with it now personally, more than I was a few months ago.
[[“I did vote in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, but I want to have my say this time for Congress as well. foxy”]
Then do not complain about YOUR government wanting YOU US CITIZEN to pay it taxes.]]
I vote, therefore I have no voice? This is a non-sequitur, not to mention internally self-contradicting. I cannot even imagine the sort of mindset that could think this is a rational response in a free country.
@foxyladyhawk- there is no Constitutional connection that conditions the right to vote with payment of taxes. I know that this argument is always hauled out by those who want to justify the right of the U.S. government to tax its expats but the argument is specious.
If voting were contingent on payment of taxes then there are more than a few million homelanders who should not be voting since, even making tax payments that are not related to the income tax, they are still running an account deficit with the U.S. Treasury. Expats can never be in a deficit situation since their government services are not denominated in U.S. Treasury debt instruments.
* I cannot even imagine the sort of mindset that could think this is a rational response in a free country.
If you vote then you are voluntarily placing yourself within the jurisdiction of the USA. When you cross the border you cannot deny their right to grab you and prosecute you. Simple as that. 🙂
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Just posting this as a related article for FYI, not exhorting or advising.
Not sure which thread about the US election is most appropriate, but came across this:
“Americans in Canada: What role will expats play in the U.S. election?”