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.

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