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US Democrats Overseas Give Obama Another Victory in Nomination Race

  • Eve Troeh

Barack Obama garnered his 11th consecutive primary win this week, when Democrats Abroad announced from Geneva, Switzerland, that the Illinois senator had won the party's Global Primary. Obama got about 65 per cent of more than 20,000 votes submitted overseas. As Eve Troeh reports, Democrats in more than 160 countries cast ballots by mail, fax, in person and - for the first time - online.

About six million U.S. citizens live outside the United States, including students, business people and members of the military. Some say the Global Primary is a step toward better voting rights for them. But others see the event as more symbolic than practical.

On Super Tuesday, when voters in 22 states went to the polls, more than 1,500 Americans gathered in London's Grand Central Library to vote in the Democratic Global Primary. They split into two caucuses: for Obama or for Clinton.

Democrats overseas had a choice this primary season: Vote, as usual, by paper absentee ballot from their home state. Or waive that right, and cast a vote by mail, online or in person in the Democrats Abroad Global Primary.

The group set up voting sites in more than 30 countries. The polls were open for one week, starting on February 5. Most were not typical polling stations - balloting was held in bars, private clubs, or coffee shops. In New Delhi, India, voters met at a restaurant called Ploof. They voted upstairs, and partied downstairs.

"There were 100 and something voters who brought their kids, their friends, their families. Because they wanted that sense of being together for a really important political moment," said Carolyn Sauvage-Mar, the chair of Democrats Abroad India. She says it was especially important for the fastest-growing democracy in the world to see that Americans take their right to vote seriously.

"There were many many first-time voters. A couple of 18 year-olds. There was a naturalized citizen from Ghana, and a naturalized citizen from the UK. There were of course many Indian-Americans. We had another younger person who actually flew to Delhi from Mumbai, a two hour flight, just to vote," he said.

Back in 2004, when she started Democrats Abroad India, she says it was chaotic to coordinate absentee ballots all over the country. This year's option to vote online eliminated some of the challenges of the vast distances and erratic mail service.

In Oslo, Norway, Fulbright scholar Elizabeth Wiley cast her ballot online. "I got an email with my ballot number and a personal identification number and directed me to the website...so I entered my name in full, my street and mailing address in Norway...," she said.

For her, the decision to vote in the Global Primary versus an absentee ballot was easy. Wiley's home state of Michigan was stripped of its delegates by the Democratic Party this year. Democrats Abroad gets just 11 of the 4,000-plus votes at the national convention. But that's more of a say than Wiley would have had if she voted at home. And, it was faster. "I was asked to give my PIN number, and then my ballot was submitted. Took less than a minute," she said.

The Global Primary has been touted in the news media and by the Democrats as progressive and inclusive. But Republicans Abroad has described it as more idealistic than realistic. Unlike Democrats Abroad, the Republican group isn't directly tied to the GOP, and doesn't get delegates at its convention. Members say this allows them to focus on making sure their constituents get their traditional absentee ballots… and mail them back.

American Enterprise Institute researcher John Fortier, who has studied absentee voting, says within the Democratic Party, the Global Primary was a good way to increase participation in choosing its presidential candidate. But when it comes to battling Republicans at the polls in November, overseas voters won't have the online, fax, or in person options. Only paper absentee ballots from a state are counted in federal elections. And Fortier says problems still plague those ballots.

"That system hasn't changed dramatically at all. We have problems with military ballots not having postmarks. And the difficulty of the voter overseas ensuring they get their ballots in time, ensuring that their ballots are back and counted in time. And here I think we are falling short," he said.

But Democrats Abroad Executive Director Lindsey Reynolds says the Global Primary does influence the November election. It sends the message that every vote is valuable.

"In a practical sense, it allows Americans in South Africa, the Congo, Afghanistan to vote in our primary and have a voice in our nomination. And I think it has certainly made a symbolic gesture to them that we're out there trying to find them and make sure their voice counts," he said.

She says if overseas voters, of any political stripe, feel that someone is reaching out to them, and looking out for their rights, they're more likely to take the extra effort to vote this fall," she said.

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