Sunday, August 31, 2008

DAT in the Bangkok Post -- Awakening the Overseas Electorate -- 31 Aug 2008

Awakening the Overseas Electorate

The excitement of the US presidential election is bubbling over in Thailand's Yankee expat community, thanks in large part to advances in IT that Democrats seem more adept at tapping into, writes ERIKA FRY

When Peter Fischbach moved to Thailand 18 years ago, he joined Democrats Abroad Thailand (DAT). It was a nascent group at the time, made of a handful of members who started meeting in the late '80s and who kept in touch about events and elections by snail mail and the occasional fax.

An active Democrat for much of his life, Fischbach wanted to do his part, and with another DAT member, he started a newsletter for members - mostly, to get the word out about party and political news from back in the US. This was 1990, when, as Fischbach recalls, the media landscape was limited to local papers and a video cassette recording of the previous night's CNN broadcast, which was delivered daily.

When Jonathan Fox, a 29-year-old community organiser, moved to Thailand four months ago, he joined DAT and started a Facebook group. An active Democrat for much of his life (and for Obama during the primary season), Fox wanted to do his part, and he googled, Facebooked, and otherwise web-searched Barack, Obama, Bangkok when he arrived in the city.

"Nothing came up, so I started it," Fox says simply of his 67-person Bangkok for Barack Obama (BFBO) Facebook group.

(Facebook is a social networking website, and joining a group on the site pools you into an online community).

The group, whose members now include DAT Chair Phil Robertson, DA Asia-Pacific Chair and Chiang Mai resident, Gary Suwannarat, and at least one non-voting Frenchman, has become "a sort of focal point for DAT and a central place where people can go and learn about events," says Fox.

While providing this sort of community space was part of his intent, so was voter outreach. "There's a problem - it's a general one, but particularly true in Thailand - in reaching young, mobile voters, the young people that are in Thailand studying for a semester or teaching English for a year, the volunteers, the researchers."

Though he's modest about it - "The group is only around two months old. It's more than my four friends and me." - a quick look at BFBO member profiles would seem to indicate his effort has been a success. He frequently receives inquiries from people asking how to volunteer, get involved, or vote.

The experiences of Fox and Fischbach (whose own DAT involvement hardly died back in the word processing days; he recently was among the small global taskforce that built the internet infrastructure for DA's Global Primary and website and serves as DAT Vice-Chair) reflect changing times, sure.

But their stories also illustrate a major shift underway in terms of the significance and electoral strategy wrapped up in America's overseas voters, as well as a shift in the scale and scope of US political activity and organisation abroad.

The number of Americans living abroad is put somewhere between 4-10 million (the figure remains too difficult for the US Census Bureau to track). And though the population has historically been woefully under-represented in elections (only one million registered in 2004), every citizen of legal voting age - no matter how long they've been away from the States - has the right to vote in the state they last resided.

Yet, according to Chris Kimble, Chairman of Thailand's Republicans Abroad chapter (TRA) and Robertson, a huge number of these, including those among Thailand's American expat population of 25,000, are not aware of it.

"There are many misconceptions about overseas voting," says Robertson. "People don't realise they can vote. Americans who have dropped off the radar for many years think they can't vote. That's wrong."

Suwannarat adds that others living abroad are aware of their right but either don't know how to exercise it, or, particularly for those who left the US long ago, are cynical, disenfranchised, apathetic and don't care to.

For obvious reasons, politicians have never spent much time courting these voters.

But there are signs this is changing.

While there are several reasons for this, at least part of the story lies back in 2000 and the still-contentious election in which current President George W. Bush won the contest due to a few thousand votes in Florida.

These votes, the loss of the election, and 8 years of the very unpopular Bush administration are still, amidst lingering feelings of resentment and anxiety, much rehashed and reflected on in American society. (And on American TV - HBO recently released 'Recount' which surely stirred up some old dust.) Bush's slim victory has since been variously, but not exhaustively, attributed to Ralph Nader, confused elderly voters, and expats.

The narrow margins that determined a number of recent races (DA claims responsibility for two close Senate wins in 2006 and the Obama-Clinton primary outcome) have only re-inforced this new sort of every-vote-counts-awareness.

And, just as with America's domestic voters, technology advances and media proliferation have led to an increasingly networked and well-informed set of citizens abroad.

Expat vote matters

These changes have also made far-flung voters more accessible to campaigns, and with another tight presidential race underway, these are votes the campaigns are as keen to realise, as voters are to cast.

"The one great unknown in the American electorate is overseas voters," says Robertson, noting that politicians, pundits, pollsters and America's hyperactive media have "x-rayed all the key voting states. When elections are decided by a couple thousand votes, it becomes clear this overseas vote matters."

Maybe because the memory of 2000 haunts them still, the Democrats and the Obama campaign have so far been more aggressive and far more successful in their effort to awaken the overseas electorate.

Americans Abroad for Obama (AAO), which is connected to the Obama campaign and which has 10 Regional Field Directors around the globe to mobilise voters (this includes an Indonesia-based, Princeton-educated lawyer for Southeast Asia), is a striking example of this.

In 2004, John Kerry's expat sister canvassed for voters in Europe and Karl Rove made a George Bush campaign stop in London, but such formal efforts by the Obama campaign to reach the overseas vote are unprecedented (as is his similarly thorough "50 state strategy"), and so far, unmatched by the McCain campaign.

The same could be said of the more local efforts to mobilise voters in Thailand.

DAT is hardly a nascent organisation these days. Membership of the group now numbers somewhere in the thousands (DAT leadership does not disclose exact figures), and has grown "almost geometrically" with the candidacy of Obama, says Peter Foley, a member of DAT since the late '80s who currently serves as chair of its Chiang Mai chapter. (He is also a former DAT chair). Most recently, the organisation launched a Pattaya and Eastern Sea Board chapter to add to those that already operate in Chiang Mai, Phuket, Isan, and Laos.

Foley and Robertson attribute this explosion of interest to a variety of factors, among them enthusiasm for the party's candidate, whom Foley calls "one of the most exciting to come on the political stage since Abe Lincoln."

They also credit advances in technology, media proliferation (and greater voter awareness) and the current political climate for their growth in numbers.

"I always say our best recruiter is George Bush," says Fischbach. "People are really anxious to do something."

He recently assisted one such anxious soul, a resident of Thailand for the past 22 years who had last cast a vote for John F. Kennedy, with his voter registration. It was not easy, the process entailed a few phone calls with Illinois election officials and tracking down an address in Chicago that no longer exists, but "He wanted to vote. He's so fed up about Bush," explained Fischbach.

Suwannarat, Fischbach and Robertson say these forces have recently helped to attract a broader set of members to DAT. Suwannarat says the organisation now includes more casual Democrats ('not just the die hards'), while Robertson and Fischbach mention there have been more and more business-minded expats (even oilmen!) joining their ranks, perhaps defecting from the Republican party.

TRA's chair Kimble, who has presided over the organisation of 100 or so Republican members since January, concedes that "the whole world is sort of against Bush right now" and that DA has been especially skilled in mobilising recently.

While he says TRA membership has been less active than in past years, he says it's due to leadership change in the organisation, and not lack of Republicans.

It's also important to note that RA and DA are fundamentally different organisations. While DA is connected to the Democrat National Committee as a 51st state in the party's nominating process (registered Democrats Abroad vote in a Global Primary, 22 DA delegates attended the Democrat convention this week), RA is a fundraising organisation that is independent of the Republican National Committee and does not campaign for candidates. Registered Republicans living overseas vote in party contests in the state they last resided.

Educating voters

Despite the distinctions, both groups consider it their mission to register and educate voters for their party. Both groups stage their main registration drive at the US Embassy's Independence Day picnic, hold politically-minded activities like films, speakers, discussions and speak of the important social aspect of their organisations (oddly both Robertson and Fishbach reconnected with long-lost contacts from their high schools through the organisation).

Robertson adds that DAT strives to bring a Thai spirit to events so there is "always lots of sanook." In recent months, much of that fun has centred around the approaching election and Obama. Last month, they threw a 'platform for Barack Obama party' at Bangkok's Roadhouse Barbeque restaurant (Robertson noted the pub-like venue captured the spirit of the early ale-drinking days of the Republic) and in June, a handful of members spent a Saturday scouting out Bangkok for the Obama Bridge project, a venture in which Obama-supporters around the world posed in photos near bridges, to signify the candidate's bridging qualities ('Yes, we span' was the slogan of the day). The photographs, including that of the Bangkok group aside Praram 8 bridge, were collected in an album that was presented to Obama earlier this week at the convention. DAT, incidentally, returned to the Roadhouse Friday to celebrate this and other convention moments, by watching the video footage of Obama's convention speech, eating ribs, and drinking something close to ale.

Yet, even if these organisations succeed in registering and mobilising their voters, successfully casting a ballot from abroad is hardly an easy or foolproof task.

The problem is the process, which entails back-and-forth international mailings and which can only be initiated when a voter - well-in-advance of the first Tuesday in November - sends a ballot request form to the last state in which they reside, is complicated and time-consuming.

In a report last year, voting experts from America's Overseas Vote Foundation and National Defense Committee said that anywhere from a quarter to half of overseas voters fail in their effort to vote, for reasons that range from wrong postage to missed deadlines and mistranslated addresses.

The internet has made things easier. There are several websites, including DA's (equally useful for Republicans), that explain and simplify the process to the point that one simply needs 5 minutes to enter personal information and print (and then mail) the ballot request form.

"It makes it so much easier," says Fischbach, who helped to design and engineer the site. "It takes you through it and your ballot is arranged."

TRA and DAT both do what they can to assist voters in the process, and Fischbach can tell more than a few stories from over the years. The best advice may be to get started now, if you haven't already.

For US citizens living in Thailand, there's little else to wait for. With one convention down, and another just a day away, America's election season is officially in full swing and it's easier than ever for the voter abroad to experience the presidential election as if he or she were living in the States.

This year, for the first time, registered Democrats living in Thailand could cast votes on 'Super Tuesday' in a DA Global Primary (in years past, DA ran caucuses in individual countries). Robertson and a few DA volunteers even scrapped together a few authentic-looking voting booths for the occasion.

Candidate propaganda? DAT gives out Obama bumper stickers, buttons, and has already blown through several sell-out (or donated-out) iterations of "Bangkok for Barack" t-shirts.

Political ads - if they are really, missed - can be viewed, along with countless other clips of Obama Girls, McCain outakes and other election propaganda on the internet.

Obama voters, there's even a Facebook group for you.

If you're a Republican, you may be out of luck.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dinner with Barack! Friday, August 29 -- Don't Miss It!

Friday, August 29th – 6 to 8 PM – Roadhouse Barbecue Calling all Barack Obama supporters in the Big Mango and further afield in Thailand! Americans Abroad for Obama (AAO) and Democrats Abroad Thailand (DAT) will be holding a no host event in Bangkok starting at 6:00 PM (cocktails, dinner) and then at 6:30 PM showing the historic nomination speech of Senator Barack Obama. Come join us on the second floor of the Roadhouse Barbeque for a night of great American food, drink and camaraderie as we celebrate the official start of Sen. Obama's candidacy.

Obama gear, including t-shirts, bumpers stickers and buttons, will be available and there will be informed volunteers ready to help US citizens register to vote and apply for their absentee ballot. Of course throughout the proceedings there will be plenty of time for eating, drinking and socializing. The broadcast of Sen. Obama's speech will start at 6:30 PM followed by a discussion of the prospects for Democrats in November from 7:30 to 8:00 PM with representatives of AAO and DAT.

Afterwards, be sure to stick around and enjoy the Roadhouse's live band and great atmosphere. If you can make it, please RSVP to

Where: Roadhouse Barbeque, corner of Surawong and Rama IV Road (next to Jim Thompson outlet)

Directions: See map on website at

When: Friday, 29 August 2008 -- 6:00 to 8:00 PM

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Democrats Abroad event in Pattaya -- coverage from Pattaya Mail

Pattaya Mail, Vol. XVI, no. 33 – August 15-21, 2008

US Democrats in Thailand drum up support for Obama

Sawittree Namwiwatsuk
American Democrats are drumming up support amongst their fellow countrymen living in Thailand for US presidential candidate Barack Obama in the run-up to the election that will be held on November 4.

Philip S Robertson, chairman of Democrats Abroad Thailand is urging American citizens to vote in the upcoming presidential election.

August 1 at the New Orleans Restaurant saw the Democrats Abroad Thailand organization opening the Democrats Abroad Thailand Pattaya and the Eastern Region Branch, along with holding a discussion about the forthcoming election.
Philip S Robertson, chairman of Democrats Abroad Thailand along with Loran Davidson of Democrats Abroad Eastern, and Rey Bwono, Democrats Abroad Thailand volunteer discussed the Obama campaign with 30 American expats.
Robertson said that all American expats in Thailand have the right to vote in the US presidential election, and that every vote counted. He said that in the 2000 election between Al Gore and George Bush, there was a difference of only 537 votes.
The meeting was held to debut the Democrats Abroad Thailand Pattaya and the Eastern Region Branch, an area in which a lot of American expats reside.
Robertson said that Democrats Abroad are active worldwide, and in Asia have branches in the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, India, and Nepal. In Thailand, the organization has branches in Chiang Mai, Udon Thani, Khon Kaen, Korat, and Nongkhai, with their Bangkok office acting as headquarters.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Get your cool T-shirts -- Bangkok for Barack

Democrats Abroad Thailand is lucky to have a very talented member -- Haruko Yamauchi who has come up with an excellent design that we have turned into a "Bangkok for Barack" t-shirt. The design has Bangkok for Barack on the front and the URL on the back. Those interested in the t-shirt should send an email to democratsabroadthailand "at"

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Democrats Abroad Thailand,

How many of you thought that actress Gwyneth Paltrow was a British citizen? After watching her in "Shakespeare in Love", how could we not imagine that? Well think again -- she is an American citizen, and will be voting from abroad in London for Sen. Barack Obama and Democrats down the ticket this November! Check her out and her fellow Americans out -- and recommend this video to your friends. It's time for Americans get another American friend to register and vote absentee -- and it all starts with

Here's the URL for the video on YouTube:

Saturday, August 2, 2008

DAT in The Nation -- Obama Excitement Extends to the Beer and Barbecues of Bangkok

DAT had a very, very successful event on 26 July at the Roadhouse Barbecue, where we talked about the party platform (and sent ideas to the Obama campaign) -- and The Nation sent a reporter who produced the following story:

The Nation (Bangkok), August 2, 2008

Obama excitement extends to the beer and barbecues of Bangkok

By Anthony Audi
The Nation

While Barack Obama spent last week meeting with foreign dignitaries in the Middle East and Europe, Democrats in Bangkok gathered at Roadhouse BBQ to discuss party platform over beer, baked potatoes and ribs. At least 30 people attended the discussion, and their enthusiasm underscored both the strong overseas interest in the upcoming election and a push by Barack Obama to draw faraway voters into the political process.

With unprecedented sums of money at his disposal, the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party is running a worldwide campaign, working vigorously to court not only Americans at home but also citizens overseas. As the first candidate to open offices in all 50 states, Obama is extending his "leave no constituency behind" approach to the greater world, hiring 10 full-time staffers to work outside of the US.

The effectiveness of this strategy remains unclear in a state like Utah, where a Democrat cannot conceivably win, but in Bangkok, at least, the effort has garnered enthusiasm. Phil Robertson, Chair of Democrats Abroad in Thailand, believes Obama's strategy reflects the candidate's beginnings as a community organiser in Chicago. "He realises the importance of organising," Robertson said. "In an era of razor-thin elections, every single vote centre counts, and Obama knows that he has to leave no stone unturned."

Austin, a Bangkok-based American who has designed trendy T-shirts with the slogan "Bangkok for Obama", sees the overseas vote as a rare unknown in a political process where nothing is left to chance. "All the votes in the 50 states have been X-rayed," he said, "but the big questions is Americans overseas. This is an area where the parties haven't done that much".

If this year's election results are as tightly contested as in 2000 and 2004, votes cast abroad could make a crucial difference in the final result. In 2000, some credited the overseas vote with tipping Florida - and the election - in Bush's favour, and in 2004, many believe overseas ballots that were not counted in swing states like Ohio could have won the election for John Kerry. Though exact figures are not available, estimates place the number of Americans abroad somewhere between 4.3 and 7.2 million, roughly the population of states like Massachusetts and Minnesota. The US embassy estimates that 20,000 of those expatriates currently reside in Thailand.

The overseas vote has also been a source of controversy, with as many as half of America's voters complaining that they received their ballot too late or not at all in the 2004 election. This year, Democrats Abroad are hoping to make the process easier, with such efforts as, a website that automatically fills out the form to request a ballot from overseas.

Chris Kimble, the Thailand Chair for Republicans Abroad, recognises that Democrats Abroad have done a great deal to raise their visibility. "In Thailand, Democrats are a lot more visible, they're a lot more organised, a lot more vocal than we are," he said. Kimble also expressed worry that votes from abroad might push the upcoming election in Obama's favour.

With only 20 per cent of Americans believing their country is "on the right track", the mood seems ripe for a Democratic takeover this November, and the desire for different leadership is particularly noticeable among Americans overseas. "We've been over here six years and I have travelled abroad a lot," said Henry, an American currently based in Thailand, "and in the last few years, because of Bush, the minute people realised I'm American, I've got a big public-relations job to do".

Phil Robertson went even further, describing what he sees as "a real popular revulsion towards a president who has denigrated and destroyed goodwill in the international community".

During the Democratic debate at the Roadhouse BBQ this past Saturday, the lively crowd of expatriates disagreed on several issues, whether timetables for Iraq or America's relationship with Israel, but their opinions converged when it came to their country's current president. One impassioned speaker, who wore a Super Bowl baseball cap and a Bluetooth earpiece throughout the discussion, received hearty applause after declaring that he wants "everybody in Bush's administration in jail". Another gentleman joined in, to emphasise a different, more restrained approach. "I think we should stay positive," he said. "Let's leave the bitter angry old man stuff to John McCain."

If Bush hating seems to have reached an all-time high for Americans overseas, so has Obama loving. Most Democrats in Bangkok seem to agree that unlike John Kerry, this year's presumptive nominee has voters excited about his candidacy. "The feeling of the election in 2004 was 'How can we stop Bush?'" Robertson recalled, "And in this election it has been 'How can we elect Obama'".

Moreover, aspects of Obama's heritage that have drawn scepticism from certain Americans back home - Obama lived in Indonesia for six years, is the son of a Muslim from Kenya and his middle name is Hussein - are seen as assets by Americans abroad. As a middle-aged Democrat named Betsy opined, "he's going to be a good American ambassador, because he looks more international. He looks more like the rest of the world."

Though it is not as organised and seemingly less optimistic than its Democratic counterpart, Republicans Abroad remains a potentially significant force for Obama's opponent John McCain. Chris Kimble, who described the Republican constituency overseas as "guys in the military and guys in business", sees these professions are part of the reason for Republicans Abroad's low profile. "Guys in business are busy," he explained, "so we don't do a good job getting organised". For voters like Kimble, the important election issues are financial, and in that respect, they will almost all vote for McCain. "The big concern among Republicans right now is the tax policies, and McCain is right on those issues," Kimble said.

The dynamic in Bangkok reflects the greater trend of this presidential election. Barack Obama has become the highly visible, rock-star candidate, while McCain looms quietly in the background. In the Thai capital, enthusiastic Obama supporters have made T-shirts, organised events, and created a fan group on the social networking site Facebook. When one searches the words McCain and Thailand on that same website, the only result is a group comparing the senator's face to a body part that cannot be named in this newspaper.

What does this all mean for the upcoming election? "I think there is a lot of time between now and November," said Kimble, "but it's going to be a tough year for Republicans".