U.S. Voters Abroad Are Set For Record-Breaking Turnout

Reflections on helping an oft-ignored group of voters cast their ballots; the health crisis of dirty air; German competence; and a fitness hack

As of this year, I’ve cast as many votes in Presidential elections from outside of the U.S. as I have while living in it. My first vote from abroad was in 2000. Another student looked over my shoulder, as I filled out my absentee ballot in the small student center for the University of Notre Dame Innsbruck program. (I’d made no secret of whom I’d be voting for.) He didn’t plan to vote.

“The candidates,” he said, “are all the same.”

At the time, I also didn’t think that vote was very consequential. We all know how wrong that turned out to be.

In 2020, the importance of the U.S. elections—for the country and the world—are undeniable. Much can be said about the stakes, but for me, one revelation this week was particularly devastating. We learned that the parents of 545 children separated by the Trump administration at the border have yet to be found.

545 children.

Imagine for a moment that one of them is your child. How horrific.

Stories of children separated at the border rightly made all of the major outlets in the U.K. So did the Black Lives Matter protests, which have inspired and provided hope to activists worldwide. The “gravitational pull” of the U.S.— as a neighbor said to me yesterday—is inescapable. Several of my non-American friends have commented that they should also have a vote in the U.S. election, given how much it affects their lives.

U.S. citizens abroad have had the right to vote since 1976. (Activists in the 1970s sent teabags to Congress to protest their taxation without representation.) But historically, like my fellow student, they haven’t exercised that right. Up to 6.5 million eligible U.S. voters live outside the U.S., but in recent elections, only 7% have returned a ballot.

This year, however, is likely to be entirely different story. By all accounts, turnout among voters living abroad is set to double. This is a huge deal because even in lower numbers, overseas votes can be pivotal in close elections.

Since February, I’ve worked with a team of phenomenal volunteers designing and executing the social media strategy for Vote from Abroad—a site that seeks to make it as easy as possible for U.S. voters abroad to register to vote and request a ballot.

In March, all in-person voter drives— the primary tool for voter outreach in prior years— were suspended. But nonetheless, the site has had 1 million visits this election cycle—about 3 times more than 2016. Five days a week, trained volunteers help U.S. voters abroad in virtual voter help sessions.

The experience has been a meaningful one for me. First, because it’s been a joy to watch the determination of volunteers worldwide to help every last American abroad vote. They’ve been undeterred by postal delays, ballots requiring an advanced arts-and-crafts degree, and ever-changing election rules and deadlines. One volunteer even registered someone she was matched up with on Tinder.

Secondly, because creating a non-partisan source of voting information is very good for the soul in a divisive election year. From the start, we had a few simple goals for Vote from Abroad’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter presence:

  • Give voters reliable information;

  • Bust myths that keep people from voting from abroad (without repeating those myths);

  • Showcase the power and voice of U.S. voters abroad; and,

  • Make it easy for people to champion voting with their friends.

The relief of some voters when they find Vote from Abroad is palpable. No matter what happens in November, I’ll be proud of what we as a team of global U.S. citizens have accomplished.

Quick Thoughts

  • The health crisis of dirty air. The State of Global Air report estimates that air pollution is killing half a million babies every year. Most of the deaths occur in the Global South and are the result of indoor air pollution caused by the use of solid fuels like wood and charcoal in cooking. When pregnant women are exposed to dirty air, their babies are more likely to be born pre-mature and/or at low birthweight— a major risk factor for infant mortality. The report doesn’t address the impact of the pandemic on air pollution— but with more people spending more time indoors, it seems we could see worsening impacts on the youngest and most vulnerable babies.

  • Why Germany is managing the pandemic better than its neighbors. Luck, learning, local responses, and listening to scientists. I have a love/hate relationship with the country, but seriously, from the vantage point of an American living in the U.K., I certainly miss living in a country that run by leaders (largely) acting like grown-ups.

  • Embrace the mini-workout. This is one of the more liberating discoveries that I’ve had since having a child: Exercise doesn’t have to be a (literal) marathon. You can do it in bite-size chunks and still stay in reasonably good shape. I don’t know why I didn’t embrace this sooner. I used to close the door to my office at the Office of Management and Budget and do 15 push ups to set my head straight. (Don’t tell my former boss!)

Hope that you all have a good week! As a note, next week’s newsletter will arrive in your inboxes on Sunday. Still working out how to best structure and time this weekly project. Feedback is welcome on when you’d prefer to receive it!

Best wishes,

Joanna