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Overseas vote could tip US election

The winner could be decided abroad

(swissinfo.ch)

With just nine weeks to go before the United States presidential election, American expatriates are registering to vote in record numbers.

In Switzerland and across Europe, organisations representing US citizens overseas are reporting a huge surge in absentee ballot requests ahead of November 2.

According to both Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad, expatriate voter numbers appear to be four times higher than they were at this time in 2000.

And they say the overseas vote could prove decisive in deciding whether the Republican incumbent, George W Bush, or his Democratic rival, John Kerry, emerges as president.

“There’s more interest in this election than I’ve ever seen before,” said the head of Democrats Abroad in Switzerland, Caitlin Buchman.

“People who aren’t by nature very political have become politicised by this election,” she told swissinfo.

Her comments were echoed by the head of Republicans Abroad in Europe, Robert Pingeon, who says his organisation has seen a “dramatic increase” in requests for voting assistance since early spring.

Turnout

“I think there will be a significantly increased turnout in the 2004 election from overseas voters,” said Pingeon.

With polls suggesting a tight race to the finish, the consensus seems to be that the overseas vote could indeed tip the scales in November.

During the last presidential election in 2000, the then-Democratic candidate, Al Gore, led in Florida by 202 votes – before absentee ballots were counted.

But Bush ultimately won by 537 votes, after a nationwide recount was blocked by the US Supreme Court.

“After Florida, people finally woke up and realised that with millions of Americans living abroad, we can make a difference,” said the international chair of Democrats Abroad, Rachelle Jailer Valladeres.

Borders

Although an official census has never been taken, it is estimated that there are between six and seven million US citizens living outside the country’s borders.

According to the US Defense Department, that figure includes an estimated 3.7 million civilians, around 2.7 million military personnel and their families, as well as 100,000 US government employees.

The American International Club of Geneva estimates that there around 8,000 US citizens living in and around Geneva alone.

Regardless of how long they have been away, eligible overseas voters are entitled to have their ballots counted in the state where they last lived.

And Valladeres says Americans around the world are “coming out of the woodwork” to do just that.

The organisation says it has seen its membership double over the past year, while its number of overseas chapters has jumped from 30 to 73 since 2000.

War

Both Buchman and Valladeres cite the war in Iraq, as well as a rising tide of anti-Americanism, as the main reasons many expatriates are calling for a shift in US foreign policy and a change in administration.

“It’s getting to the point that little old ladies on the tram are hitting me with their umbrellas, saying ‘You bad American, what are you doing?’” said Buchman.

“Even in a US-centric country like Switzerland, we’ve seen how our image has eroded in a frightening way since September 11,” she added. “We don’t like it, so we’re voting.”

It seems that the Bush administration’s domestic and foreign policies have even prompted some diehard Republicans to switch camps.

Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, a Cuban-born American and professor of international law living in Geneva, says he is encouraging his fellow party members to “think twice” before voting for Bush.

Disqualified

“I still consider myself a Republican,” de Zayas told swissinfo. “But I consider George W Bush to have disqualified himself to occupy the office of president.

For his part, Pingeon dismisses criticism that America has alienated itself from its friends and allies.

“The Republican party recognises the need for a very strong defence and a pro-active foreign policy,” he said. “Some people criticise that position as being aggressive but we don’t think it is.”

He agrees that every vote will count in this race for the White House.

“This is going to be a very close election. Democracy is not a spectator sport and on both sides of these issues, there is a lot of interest,” he said.

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva

Key facts

It is estimated that there are between 6 and 7 million Americans living abroad.
Some 8,000 live in and around Geneva, according to the local American International Club.
A law signed in 2002 guarantees that all absentee ballots are counted at the same time as regular ballots, if filed by election day.

end of infobox

In brief

Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad say expatriate voter numbers appear to be four times higher than they were at this time in 2000.

Democrats blame the war in Iraq and rising anti-Americanism for the increase in voter interest abroad.

Republicans Abroad say their votes will outweigh those of the Democrats by 3 to 1.

end of infobox


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