(Author’s note: We interviewed the founder and president of the U.S. Vote Foundation for this post about overseas voting as an American expat. Voting is the most important civic duty an expat can do for their country of origin, and is an important issue for us at Dispatches Europe.)
Though you may be making the most of your expat life, you’re also a representative your home nation.
Should that nation be the United States, you’ve likely heard these questions from your new friends and co-workers because let’s be honest – the vast majority of Europeans find our choice of presidents polarizing no matter which party they’re from.
- What is wrong with your president?
- Why did your country vote him/her into office?
- Will the United States come to its senses?
Being outside the bubble of American politics gives you a greater perspective of the nation’s standing with the world, and why it’s important to vote for the people whose responsibility is to shape the country into the best version of itself it can be.
But you’re not in the United States: You’re in the Netherlands, in Portugal, in Germany or wherever. How are you going to vote for those candidates whose platforms you believe in when you’re thousands of miles and an ocean away?
Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat knows. She’s not only an American expat — Munich, Germany is her current home — but she is founder and president of the U.S. Vote Foundation, a non-partisan organization devoted to helping fellow American expats learn all about voting from abroad including how to register for your local, state and federal elections.
The organization was originally founded as the Overseas Vote Foundation in 2004, and it all began with the geopolitical environment shaped by then-U.S. president George W. Bush’s War On Terror following the attacks of 11 September 2001.
“It was a personal experience that inspired [the U.S. Vote Foundation],” said Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “It was 2004. I had two kids. I started looking at what was going on, and thought, ‘Hmm, maybe I should drum up some voices from overseas to go in and send our votes back home.”
According to Dzieduszycka-Suinat, her background was not in “voting or elections,” but in software development, having begun her expat life with a software company. Though she had no experience in the electoral process beyond what every American already knows, she didn’t that stop her from finding out how to go about voting abroad so that her fellow expats then, now and in the future could do the same.
“I was handed a blurry, sepia-brown, almost illegible form and a 500-page instruction book to go with it. I really dove in and pretty much memorized the book, and I started doing events, taking my Sunday afternoons away from my family… and registering about 1.5 voters an hour. I was sitting there with a colleague of mine, and just said, ‘What’s wrong with us? What are we doing?’ ”
Dzieduszycka-Suinat tried to find her answers online, only to turn up nothing. It was then she was inspired to start her organization, using her software development and marketing background and the knowledge gained from the doorstopper voting manual to fill the void.
“I made a pitch to the Democratic National Committee [in 2004],” said Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “I wanted run [the program] as a non-partisan thing, and we did. The first pilot was called ‘Overseas Vote 2004,’ and I was sent to Washington, D.C., where I was given four days to work with a developer team to brief them on what they had to build… and they managed to put something together.”
The program was rolled out at the 2004 DNC Convention in Boston, Massachusetts, which was “really too late” to bring overseas voters aboard for the 2004 U.S. presidential election.
That said, the response blew the DNC away; they were expecting 500 registrations, yet received 64,000 registrations.
This was the genesis of what would ultimately become the U.S. Vote Organization, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.
Nearly fifteen years later, the organization is, per Dzieduszycka-Suinat, “the only organization that ever focused on [the issue of overseas voting].” She adds that, through annual data gathering and research, the organization was able to effect laws related to overseas voting in U.S. elections, starting with the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act.
The 2009 MOVE Act was a mandate for the modernization of overseas voting, requiring individual states to make overseas voting as easy as voting in-person. That includes allowing voters to request electronic or paper ballots as well as requiring state governments to distribute ballots six weeks from any given primary or general election.
Despite improvements to the process through the use of modernization and technology, Dzieduszycka-Suinat says getting her fellow expats to register and to vote is as difficult as doing so is at home:
“We fixed the process problem, but one thing I’ve learned in voting and elections and civic tech is that you can create all sorts of technology, but it doesn’t mean that people vote more. People vote for other reasons… we have the best thing going, but the least used. It’s absolutely tragic.”
According to Dzieduszycka-Suinat’s more recent research from the Federal Voting Assistance Program, a Pentagon-based agency “that is in charge of the rules, regulations and implementation” of overseas voting, only 4 percent of Americans living overseas turned out to vote in the last election documented by the program.
“That’s sad because there are millions of us [overseas], and lots and lots of elections turn on one vote,” said Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “The overseas population could do a lot more, but there are many reasons people don’t vote. It’s not just apathy. They could maybe not have any idea what the process is. They don’t know that it’s easy. They dropped out. They stopped paying attention. Maybe they think they’re going to be pursued for taxes ….
“Every time a voter gives up their voice, they give outside power to someone else to decide for them.”
Dzieduszycka-Suinat believes the current issues affecting the United States (and thus, the global community) today could bring more expats to the virtual ballot box, especially those wondering if they’ll ever be able to return to their former American home.
“I do believe that from overseas, we see things differently. Hopefully, people will be interested to get their voices heard. [The U.S. Vote Foundation knows] all of your state-by-state deadlines for when you need to file your ballot request. It’s one form. It’s easy to do, but that’s the date to care about.”
For more information about overseas voting, as well as to register to vote, visit www.usvotefoundation.org.