What It's Like to Watch This Election As an American Expat

When there's an ocean between you and Donald Trump, the approaching election can feel pretty abstract.

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Oct 4 2016, 4:00am

A Democrats Abroad banner from 2012. Photo via Wikipedia

Blaise Nicklas used to hear about politics all the time back when he lived in Pennsylvania. But since he moved to Spain in 2015, he's been more isolated from the 24-hour-newsiness of the election, even as that election has turned into one of the most heated in living memory.

"Obviously I'm not around US citizens," Nicklas said, but at the moment he was at an event that was the exception to the rule—a debate-watching party hosted last week by Democrats Abroad, the official organization for Democrats outside the US, at Variopintos, a restaurant in Madrid.

By the time the debate began, the room was so packed, people were standing in the aisle. Sarah Graves, the chair of the Madrid chapter of Democrats Abroad, said there were around 150 people at the event.

The focus of the party was to register these prospective voters, who may stay informed about events in the home country and have to file taxes with the US government, but often don't vote. According to a survey released last month by the Federal Voting Assistance Program, only 4 percent of 2.6 million eligible expat voters sent in their absentee ballots in 2014. Though turnout for that election was lower than normal, on US soil it was about 36 percent.

"The turnout has been really low for this group, which is somewhat surprising," said Jay Sexton, a professor specializing in constitutional democracy at the University of Missouri. Part of the problem, he said, is the absentee voting process can range from inconvenient to "a pain in the ass" depending on the state in which you are registered.

"I imagine that's the case because a lot of these states are concerned with voter fraud, and they want to make sure you are who you say you are," said Sexton.

For instance, to cast an absentee ballot in the crucial swing state of Ohio, you have to register by mail by October 11 (better get on that!), then request a ballot by November 5, then send your ballot in so that it's received by November 18.

So the Democrats Abroad event wasn't just to watch the debate, but to register voters and help them navigate the sometimes tricky waters of absentee voting, according to Julia Bryan, the international secretary of Democrats Abroad, who said that the group has registered more than 100,000 voters.

Though the government estimates that there are 2.6 million potential voters overseas, other counts range from "2.2 million to 6.8 million," according to a 2013 report released by the Migration Policy Institute, so there is no way to actually know how many Americans there are abroad. "There is no one clear measure of overseas Americans," said Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels, a co-author of the report and an expert in migration and policy at University of Kent. And it's even trickier to figure out how they're going to vote.

"I have also interviewed Republicans who say they keep a low profile because the perspectives that they hold are not particularly welcome," she said, adding that Democrats Abroad has a stronger grassroots presence than any equivalent Republican group, which could make them seem more numerous. (Attempts to contact Republicans Overseas—the unofficial expat arm of the GOP—for this article were unsuccessful.)

Lily Humphrey, a 22-year-old Republican from Boston now teaching English in Madrid, told me that she often keeps her opinions to herself when Spanish people ask her about American politics. "I think its better for them to make their own decisions and their own opinions instead of hearing one side of the story," she said.

While the main goal of the debate-watching party was registering voters, it also gave Americans a chance to show off their patriotism. One woman fanned herself with an American flag notebook, battling the Spanish heat. Another man had red, white, and blue tights sticking out of his shorts.

"I feel like it gives me a sense of home," said Zora Mihaley, a 19-year-old who interns for Democrats Abroad.

Steve McCormick, a 25-year-old Republican who, like Humphrey, teaches English in Madrid, said he doesn't mind being abroad during election season. "I kind of enjoy being away from it," he said. "I used to be really interested in politics... but I just found that it's not going to change, and to me, it just becomes depressing because neither side is going to get anything done."

That sort of detachment seems to be common on both sides of the aisle among American expats in Madrid. A 28-year-old from Detroit named Isaac Hudson told me at the Democrats Abroad event that he left the United States because of the way he was treated as a gay American. "I wanted to live in Europe because there were a lot of things I didn't like about the US," said Hudson.

Hudson said that while he was happy gay people could now join the military and get married, his plans for returning could change based on the results in November: "If Trump becomes elected, I definitely don't feel comfortable."

While some at the event felt like Hudson, others said a Trump win wouldn't stop them from returning home. Ted Liu, who has been living in Madrid for three years, doesn't think the people promising to leave the US should actually take off. "What would the place become if every person left the country because they didn't agree with an elected official?" he said.

Follow Matt St. John on Twitter.

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