A hidden bloc of voters has the capacity to significantly influence politics in the United States. Scattered across different continents are over 8.7 million US citizens ― many living with unrecognised voting power. A non-profit organisation spread across the world has been aiming to seamlessly help voters submit their ballots from abroad, one mailed ballot at a time.
Democrats Abroad, the official extension of the Democratic Party in the United States. for citizens living temporarily or permanently in other countries, works to assist people with information, voting resources, the opportunity to phone bank while abroad and more.
Founded in 1964 during the election between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater, Democrats Abroad campaigned for 20 years to achieve voting rights for US citizens abroad. The organisation is now considered to be the official international arm of the Democratic Party with outreach that may expand to over 180 countries.
“We like to help people vote and help people have a community,” Samantha Tigner, secretary of Democrats Abroad Argentina, told the Times in an interview.
Having studied in 2016, Tigner fell in love with Argentina and paired living here with her love for voting and urge to share the importance of it. When the 27-year-old decided to move to Buenos Aires after college, she began networking with other people interested in opening a Democrats Abroad charter in the city. In 2018, a local branch was set up and became one in a host of countries across each continent dedicated to impacting US politics overseas.
The landmark 2020 US presidential election was a particularly fruitful time for Democrats Abroad and their voting initiatives. In general, the 2020 primaries saw the highest voter turnout of the century, according to the US Census Bureau.
“We were really lucky,” Tigner said. Democrats Abroad Argentina was able to host an in-person voting event right before the pandemic, gathering around 70 people in one space to vote in the primaries.
The youth vote in 2020 also greatly contributed to the impressive turnout. It is estimated that 17 percent of total votes during the presidential election that year came from young voters, compared to 16 percent in the previous primary election.
“We had a lot of 18-year-olds vote for the first time ever, and we had a lot of people who are dual-citizens between Argentina and the US vote for the first time ever,” Tigner said.
The group of young people in 2020 who casted their ballots was also overwhelmingly Democratic.
According to an estimate from The New York Times, exit polls revealed that 60 percent of the youth vote went to Biden and 36 percent went to Trump. Tigner believes that these young voters were driven to pursue change in the United States from Argentina and become more politically active “especially given the context of the pandemic and feeling compelled by the Black Lives Matter movement in response to police brutality.”
Midterm elections in the US tend to receive a smaller voter turnout than the primary elections.
“We get a lot less questions [around the midterms],” Tigner said. Many people tend to forget that the midterm elections are happening because they aren’t perceived as having the same importance as the presidential elections, she explained. In this particular election, the midterms seemed to have a lower voter turnout than in 2018.
“I can count on maybe one hand the amount of friends I have my age that actually voted in this midterm,” Robert Zaveralla, a student studying abroad with New York University in Buenos Aires, said.
Zavarella, 21, has voted in five total elections ranging from the regional, state to national level. He didn’t have much direct assistance while voting, but used online resources to learn how to do so in Texas while studying abroad, citing the accessibility of voter information on the state’s official voting website.
“I feel like everybody should vote when they reasonably are able to,” Zavarella told the Times.
Even though voter turnout was lower than the last US midterms, which fell in the middle of the presidency of Donald Trump, it was an extremely polarised election. The trend has been prevalent since the 2020 election and persisted into the midterms.
For Zavarella, “2020 was really different.” Both sides moved “considerably from the centre,” in his view. “ The political environment was so tense back then ― it hasn’t gotten much better, but actually going out and voting is one of the ways you can use your voice.”
While seemingly less important than the presidential elections, the midterm races can provide an international audience with more context about what is happening in US politics and the potential direction the country is headed in.
“A lot of the things that the US is grappling with right now have implications not just for US citizens but for people all over the world,” Elesha Mavrommatis, a volunteer with the non-partisan organisation Environmental Voter Project, who is currently based in Buenos Aires, said. She is a lifelong Democrat and works to help people become regular voters.
“I think in a lot of ways, voting abroad makes me feel even more connected to home,” Mavrommatis said. “Voting is a responsibility ― and it’s one I take seriously.”
Despite wanting to vote, there are a range of complications that voters abroad face when attempting to cast their ballot. According to the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), there is a 71.4 point voting gap for overseas voters compared to voters residing within the United States. Almost 40 percent of that gap is called the “obstacle gap,” referring to the difficulties people encountered when they attempted to submit their ballot from abroad. These obstacles may range from an inability to reach a US embassy in time to costs associated with personally mailing ballots.
Echoing the work of Mavrommatis, Democrats Abroad is working to alleviate the “obstacle gap” for overseas voters. It is associated with the platform Vote From Abroad, which is a non-partisan programme designed to provide people with information on how to register to vote, request their ballot, research election information and speak to a representative if necessary.
“Nobody ever asks who you’re voting for,” said Tigner. “It’s just about helping people vote, which is what I like.”
There is no doubt that increasing accessibility around voting and the ability to request absentee ballots from abroad has helped overseas voters contribute more in recent elections, but there is still a lot to work on, Tigner believes.
“It’s going to take more movements and more pushing to make voting more accessible,” she said. “It should be more accessible, but we’re doing what we can to help people.”