US Democratic Global Primary
For the First Time in History, Americans Living Overseas Can Vote Locally, as a Block
Americans are sick of being global pariahs. Europeans roll their eyes, treating American accents like nails running down a chalk board. What ever happened to the Land of Opportunity?
It seems that the past eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency have profoundly damaged the international reputation of Americans and the brief sense of solidarity that existed after 9/11.
Katie Solon, chair of Democrats Abroad Austria (DAA), is familiar with battling the fractured image Americans have internationally. A slender woman with a strong jaw, Solon is excited that this year – for the first time in history – Democrats living abroad will have a say in picking the Democratic presidential nominee.
If it wasn’t hard enough on Election Day to get Americans to their local polling stations in the United States, try getting them on Super Tuesday to the makeshift voting booths of an inconspicuous smoke-filled coffee house on the fringes of Vienna’s first district.
This is exactly what Solon is planning to accomplish at Pickwick’s Café this February 5 and 12 in the first ever Democratic Global Primary. U.S. Democrats living abroad will have the option to vote in person at substitute polling places like Pickwick’s in 34 countries, as well as by Internet, fax, and mail.
Fresh from a Democrat’s Abroad crisis – something to do with communicating instructions to voters in time for Super Tuesday – Solon whisked into the Djungel Wien Café in the Museum Quatier. Placing her leather satchel on the table with her "Gore for 2008" button facing up, she passionately launched into the story of how the Austrian Chapter of Democrats Abroad was formed.
Four years ago, Democrats Abroad Austria was just an idea of five unassuming American women living in Vienna, who were dissatisfied with George W. Bush and the American invasion of Iraq.
"We were a handful of women that found each other and that were motivated by the war and trying to figure out how we could stop it," Katie Solon recalled, "and what we could do was help people register, so they could vote Bush out."
Initially, they toyed with the idea of starting an Austrian chapter of MoveOn.org, a progressive US Political Action Committee (PAC) supported by Hungarian-born financier and Open Society Institute founder George Soros. But ultimately, they decided that it would be more effective to resurrect the Austrian chapter of Democrats Abroad that had died out during the Reagan years.
They launched in October of 2003, leaving them only two months to sign on 50 members, elect a board, and adopt the necessary by-laws required for participation in the 2004 election cycle. All resources were tapped – everything from little black books filled with ex-pat friends in Vienna, to flyers and several mass-mailing e-mail chains. This grass-roots effort yielded 70 members in just two weeks, including some of the original members of the previously dormant Austrian chapter.
At the time, Bush’s approval ratings had fallen below 40%, and it was clear that a growing faction of Americans were eager for change.
"People came out of the wood-work," Solon remembered, "people who hadn’t voted since Eisenhower and couldn’t remember their Social Security numbers." They were determined to take action, "because of Bush and because of the (Iraq) war."
By the end of their first year, Democrats Abroad Austria had signed nearly 400 members, with almost 1/3 of their membership residing outside Vienna – some as far away as Salzburg. Since then, membership has continued growing, fluctuating with Vienna’s transient ex-pat community.
Former DAA chair Kristin Smeral was responsible for initiating and maintaining the membership database. The Internet and specifically Yahoo List Serve, she said, make it possible for members to stay active.
In 2006, Democrats Abroad launched their website Votefromabroad.org, which simplifies the often complicated overseas voting process, allowing people to vote online through Democrats Abroad – eliminating worry that their paper ballots will arrive late or, even worse, not at all. Members are given an identification number they use to cast their vote and can print out a receipt when they’re done. Twenty-two delegates will be chosen to represent their votes next August in Denver, Colorado, at the Democratic National Convention.
The process will be facilitated by Everyone Counts Inc., a San Diego-based company with an established track record in electronic voting, having run the British Labor Party elections since 2000.
Stanley Hale, the press relations chief for Democrats Abroad Austria, explains that at the Democrats Abroad Conference held in London this past year members were full of questions about the potential for identity theft in online voting. Hale is confident that these worries are unfounded; Everyone Counts Inc. has experienced no prior complications concerning identity theft.
The overseas primary is not only a first for Democratic voters, it is the first and only opportunity offered to Americans living abroad to participate as a group in a primary election at all. The U.S. Republican Party has taken no steps to allocate delegate representation for the Republican overseas vote. But if voting online is so simple, why aren’t the Republicans doing it too?
Calling Pam Moore, the person listed as the chair of the Austrian chapter of Republicans Abroad, was very revealing. Unlike Democrats Abroad, Republicans Abroad is not an official branch of the U.S. Republican Party. Moore was in fact surprised to hear that she was listed as Chairperson for Austria on the Republicans Abroad website. As far as she knew, there wasn’t an "official" chapter in Austria, let alone was she the designated head. She knew nothing about the possibility of an overseas primary or about the DAA effort.
A week after our interview, the name listed next to the Austrian flag on the Republican’s Abroad website had been changed to Patrick T. Eagan, who at press time had not responded to a request for comment.
As inactive as Republicans living abroad seem to be, the Democrats in Austria are clearly gathering momentum. It is unclear which candidate is the frontrunner amongst these voters, but fundraising groups are already beginning to meet. Chapters affiliated with Democrats Abroad are unable to endorse individual candidates, but members of Democrats Abroad Austria, including Katie Solon, have begun to organize privately for their favorite candidates.
In late January, a group of Democrats met at a penthouse overlooking Stephansdom in the 1st District for a Barack Obama meet-up organized by the head of Nuclear Power Technology at the IAEA, Atam Rao.
Born in India, Rao is a naturalized American citizen who became active in Democratic politics during his years in southern California, where he worked as an engineer for General Electric, and with time got involved in fundraising. The meet-up at his flat was posted on the Internet for a week prior, one of a series each Monday leading up to the primary. Stickers directing visitors to his flat were placed next to the front door bell on the evening of the gathering, and he had official Obama signs – which took him four months to get – propped up by small Hindu elephant figurines.
On this particular Monday, three supporters showed up, including Rao, Katie Solon and Michael Platzer, the quiet-spoken owner of Pickwick’s Café.
A lemon shaped egg-timer buzzed when the pizzas were done, and the meeting could officially begin.
Tonight they were discussing fundraising. The most heated discussion arose over the possibility of arranging for Barack Obama to deliver a talk via video stream to his supporters living in Austria – or even the possibility of his talking to the group directly over Skype, as had been done in 2004 as a conference call in all the European Democrats Abroad centers simultaneously. Platzer argued that voters needed the inspiration; but the logistics were daunting and Rao couldn’t understand how they would be able to get the candidate to speak directly to ex-pats here.
Throughout, a Youtube video of Obama’s recent Martin Luther King Day speech was playing in the background. Rao turned to watch the screen again.
"You know, people choose their candidates based on emotional response more than on analysis," he said, referring to an op-ed article in the previous week’s International Herald Tribune, by columnist David Brooks. In the article, Brooks describes how "we voters - all of us - make emotional, intuitive decisions about who we prefer, and then come up with post-hoc rationalizations to explain the choices that were already made beneath conscious awareness." It is this kind of response that Barack Obama seems to have stirred in Rao and many other voters.
Because Democrats Abroad Austria has no official office – nor designated computers – private apartments like Rao’s are often solicited as meeting space.
In an apartment situated just beyond the Naschmarkt in Vienna’s 4th District, Democrats Abroad volunteers met to stuff 300 envelopes with ballots and information for the impending Global Primary. About 10 people had shown up to help stuff, including Solon, Smeral, and Hale, all of whom were clearly accustomed to setting up shop in whatever space was available, getting the job done on table, couch or floor.
It was a mix of people, including long time members and one or two who had just joined the week prior. One man, a newcomer to Austria, was a former stockbroker from New York City who had lost his job after 9/11. At the end of the meeting, members surprised him with a cheese cake and sang "Happy Birthday" – once in English, and then again in German.
Small up-start organizations rely on the contributions of its members. Michael Platzer’s unique contribution is to loan the use of his café as a polling station on Super Tuesday. Like the original group who founded Democrats Abroad Austria, Platzer is hoping to repair the damage done to America’s reputation overseas.
Back at the Obama meet-up, Platzer was still arguing with Rao about the impact the next American president would have. Removing his gold rimmed glasses and folding them into his hand – further underlining the point he was about to make – he was emphatic:
"One of the reasons I joined this whole Democrats Abroad, was to project another image of America in Central Europe." This year, he may well get his wish.
To participate in the February 5 and 12 Democratic Global Primary, visit the website at www.votefromabroad.org. And to contact or become a member of Democrats Abroad Austria, visit www.democratsabroad.org, and follow the links to becoming a new member in Austria.