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Long-Distance Democracy
Takes Missionary Zeal

November 23, 2007

Last week, about 50 American citizens gathered in the lobby of an upscale Beijing apartment building. Munching chili dogs and brownies and sipping Diet Coke, beer and wine, the group, which included investment bankers, lawyers and analysts, crowded around a speakerphone to listen to a speech by Michelle Obama, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Another 150 or 200 people were listening in from Shanghai, Tokyo, Nagoya, Singapore, Hong Kong and Jakarta.

The call was the work of Americans in China for Obama, a group started last year to raise money for and awareness about the candidate. The organizers also hope to advise the candidate about China issues. Last June, at a similar event, Sen. Obama addressed groups in Beijing and Shanghai over the phone, accenting his own experience growing up abroad and answering questions. No other major campaign seems to boast a similarly well-organized grassroots group in China. However, candidates including Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Guiliani have made significant fundraising and outreach overtures to Americans living in London, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad each have chapters around the world, dedicated to helping American expats remain politically engaged. Both groups have active chapters in Hong Kong but not in mainland China, where they fear antagonizing the Chinese government — though there doesn’t seem to be any law prohibiting their presence and my own sense is that it wouldn’t cause a ripple. Interested American citizens here can and do join the Hong Kong chapters.

I have always been a bit of a political junkie, and I still track the ups and downs of Washington through online news resources. I have voted in every election since I turned 18, including off years and off-off years, where only things like school boards and town councils were on the ballot. Because I moved a lot and always wanted to have a local vote, in my first 12 years of eligibility I registered and cast ballots in Pennsylvania, Michigan (twice), California, Florida, New York and New Jersey. When I moved to China it never occurred to me that it would be more than a blip in my voting record.

But when I finally tried to swing into action before last year’s midterm Congressional elections, I realized that my New Jersey registration had been canceled because I had had my mail forwarded to my parents’ house in Pittsburgh. For the first time in over 20 years, I was no longer a registered voter. Rectifying that proved more difficult than I anticipated.

Americans living abroad have had the right to vote by casting an absentee ballot in the congressional district where they last resided since 1975, when Congress passed the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act. I had the vague idea that I could now vote electronically, but in fact no expat can do so.

China can present some unique problems; for the last two weeks I have not been able to log onto the government site,, because it is banned behind the Great Firewall of China. I don’t know why, nor will I ever find out. It is equally likely to reappear at any moment or remain locked down indefinitely.

Luckily, voters can also register at the Web sites for Democrats or Republicans Abroad, or the non-partisan, an essential resource. But even though I registered and downloaded a New Jersey registration at the latter the other day, I still have to mail it back to Essex County, N.J., and wait hopefully for an absentee ballot to arrive the same way — so I can again use snail mail to cast my ballot. I urge any American living outside the country to get an early start checking his/her registration and receiving an absentee ballot, because it can take a while. It’s no surprise that some expats have taken a missionary zeal to helping others cast a ballot.

“I see helping Americans living abroad register and vote as a part of the long tradition of fighting for the process and right to vote,” says Carolyn Sauvage-Mar, Chair of Democrats Abroad-India. “Your chances of meeting all the rules and deadlines as John Q. Public are 50/50 at best, so we’re trying to improve the odds.”

Democrats who don’t manage to update their registration, or simply prefer to vote as an international community member, can also cast a ballot in the Democrats Abroad Global Primary, to be held on their site from Feb. 5 to Feb. 12. The victorious candidate will receive the votes from the Democrats Abroad delegates who will be at the party convention next August. Republicans Abroad are not running a similar election, nor will they have delegates at the convention.

Recent elections have emphasized the value of each vote. Ms. Sauvage-Mar says there is anecdotal evidence that overseas ballots helped turn the 2006 Virginia Senate race between George Allen and Jim Webb, where less than 10,000 votes helped shift the body to Democratic from Republican control. The 2000 Gore/Bush election was also a reminder of the power of a single vote, a fact often sited by politically active expats.

A feeling that the Bush administration has damaged America’s international standing has prompted many Democrats living abroad to look for ways to assist their party. “I never did that much here politically until after President Bush was elected and I became very concerned about the state of our country,” says Anne Stevenson-Yang, who has lived in Beijing for 17 years and is active with the Obama group. “It felt like my country changed while I was away, almost as if your parents moved house while you were away at college and didn’t tell you.”

Similarly, animosity towards Bill Clinton spurred some expat Republicans to get involved, including Christopher Fussner, an American in Singapore who has lived outside the U.S. for 25 years and is now Global Chairman of Republicans Abroad. “I never even voted the first 12 or 13 years I was abroad,” says Mr. Fussner. “Then I became really disgusted with President Clinton’s policies and said, ‘Whoa, I better figure out a way to do something.'”

Some people who live abroad feel that the experience actually fuels their desire to be involved and changes their perspective on politics. “People getting politically involved overseas seem a bit more genuine and dedicated to what they’re doing than many back in the States,” says Alan Seigrist, Vice Chair for Republican Abroad’s Hong Kong chapter. “I find the same thing in Democrats Abroad, and the mere fact that we are all friends and colleagues shows that it can be a friendlier political environment here — until Election Day that is.”

Living abroad offers a different perspective on America and its place in the world. Many feel that by living and working with people from many nationalities, they have gained a keener appreciation of the challenges and opportunities presented by an increasingly globalized society.

“I actually think we see the future coming a little bit more than most Americans are able to,” says Mike Dardzinski, an American who has lived in Beijing for four and a half years and was one of the founders of Americans in China for Obama. “Living in most places in America, you just don’t deal with people from all over the world every day like we do here, and that’s the future.”
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Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published. Below are some edited responses to my previous column about my band Woodie Alan and how it represents the opportunities that the expat life provides to try new things.

Your column captured the ability to reshape life as an expat. I worked in a big ad agency in New York, pulling some long hours and complaining about it. I’m now a corporate refugee — and happy to be doing something different — marketing for a school in Beijing, where I moved last year.

I also lived here in Beijing for a year back in 02/03 and used to tell people back home that it was like the Wild West. If you can think of it, you can do/be it. In my youthful vanity (I’m sure I’ve matured in the last few years), I had always wanted to be on TV. So when I was here that year, I actually got a gig as a CCTV English teacher on the air.

— Vicky Yip
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I loved your article on your band, and I applaud your drive and hard work to make your dream happen expat style. As an American living in Bangalore, India, I agree that you get a chance to reboot when living abroad — friends who you might not choose at home, clothes you wouldn’t wear, food you wouldn’t eat, things you wouldn’t try.

— Lisa Semmes
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I often daydream of picking up and moving to another part of the country for that “reboot” you wrote about. Meet new people, experience a new adventure, let my new surroundings influence me in ways I never thought I could; opening up a whole new world that I new existed beyond the life boundaries that we surround ourselves with. Your column definitely gave me that hope.

— John Yocca
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My family and I spent almost five years, arguably the best five, in Tokyo. I really enjoy your columns, which all ring true and it is interesting how you uncover all the gems of the expat life. You still have more to uncover so don’t come back to the States yet. Enjoy yourself. I tell friends that what my family and I experienced cannot be purchased!

— Jay Loftus
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I’m an expat in the U.S. and your column (especially the first year) captures the essence of the experience. I admire the fact that you and your family have tried so hard to learn about China and have made an effort to really see the country. Good luck with the band.

— Roshni Sacks

Thank you all.

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