The last U.S. election saw George Bush win partly due to large numbers of Republican absentee ballots. This year, Democrats have swiftly mobilized members abroad to help determine the party's presidential candidate.
Ron Schlundt has a lot on his plate. The chairman of German branch of Democrats Abroad -- the international organization of the U.S. Democratic Party -- has spent the past weeks compiling lists and counting votes.
As American voters turned out last Sunday for primary elections in Maine, expatriate Americans living in Germany held their own presidential straw polls in Berlin, Frankfurt and Kaiserslautern organized by Democrats Abroad. Two days earlier, Democrats in Heidelberg and Göttingen cast votes, which were followed on Monday with the Munich Caucus, Bavaria's answer to the Iowa Caucus.
Finally, at the end of February, the Germany-wide caucus takes place. The results will be sent to the International Caucus in Edinburgh this March. There, the combined tallies from countries around the world will determine which candidate the nine Democrats Abroad delegates will support at the Democratic National Convention in Boston this July.
Seven million Americans live abroad
The influence of Democrats Abroad sharply increased after President George W. Bush's razor-thing victory in 2000 with the help of Republican absentee voters living overseas. The Democrats have since paid closer attention to their far-flung pool of potential voters. Indeed, close to seven million Americans live outside the U.S. -- considerably more than live in smaller U.S. states like Maine, Nebraska or Nevada.
"These are all possible voters, who could be important if there's a tight race," explained Schlundt. By rallying the vote with groups like Democrats Abroad, the party leadership in Washington is hoping to pull as many voters as it can come November.
Wesley Clark, John Edwards, Howard Dean, John Kerry
According to Schlundt, the results of the handful of straw polls being held in Germany have largely mirrored those taking place back at home. John Kerry has been the clear victor (55 percent) in regional straw polls across the country and Howard Dean has landed in a distant second place (19 percent). Wesley Clark and John Edwards trailed even further, with 10 percent and 9 percent respectively.
But there are also key differences between American and German straw polls -- especially when it comes to venues. Though U.S. events are held in public buildings or schools, in Kaiserslautern the caucus was held in Schmidt's apartment. The pool of potential American voters here is relatively small and is comprised of many soldiers and their families, expatriates here on business or even university students studying abroad. "About 30 or 40 people came to my home," Schlundt said, adding with laugh, "In other words, it went very well."
There was more congestion at straw polls in Heidelberg and Berlin, cities considered the biggest districts for the so-called "German Democrats." In the capital city, the straw poll was held, appropriately, in an American diner, and at a restaurant in Heidelberg. Close to 200 of the around 1,500 registered Democrats in Germany participated in the primary election poll. Procedural restrictions in the straw polling process create geographical barriers that make it hard for more people to participate.
"In a caucus, people can't submit an absentee ballot by mail. That's why all voters -- even if they live in Leipzig or Cologne -- have to submit their vote at one of the participating polling places," Schlundt said, explaining the overall turnout.
An air of change
"But participation is 10 times greater than by the last elections," said Schlundt, who serves as a history professor at a satellite branch of the University of Maryland in Germany when he's not organizing Democratic caucuses. The reason so many Democrats are turning out to the polls, he said, is that "so many Democrats are so opposed to Bush that you don't even have to mobilize them."
That applies not only to Germany, but also in close to 40 other countries where primaries have been held in recent days. Turnout everywhere has been greater than expected, according to the professor. "The Iraq war was probably the most important issue for our members," said Schlundt. "The majority were against the war. That's why Dean was popular for so long."
But international policy isn't always at the top of the agenda for American Democrats living in Germany. Everyday problems are also important. "In Germany, we can't receive any retirement or public heath care or unemployment benefits from the United States," he said before concluding: "But that's hard to change."
Expat influence appears to be growing, however.
Though the Democrats Abroad are a small organization, they still get the party's ear in Washington. "We were able to speak to almost every candidate in Washington -- we had several of conference calls with them, and Howard Dean was a guest at our official dinner," Schlundt said.