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Voting help for US expats

Jefferson ChaseSeptember 23, 2016

The international charity organization Avaaz has unveiled a tool to help Americans based outside the US to register to vote. The idea is that most will vote against Donald Trump in US presidential election.

Launch amerikanischer Wahl-App Berlin
Image: DW/J.Chase

People waving tiny American flags turned out at the Brandenburg Gate, a short distance from where the Berlin Wall once stood, to watch demonstrators demolish a wall made of white cardboard boxes with a rubber hammer. Others held up signs reading "Tear down Trump's Wall" and "Stop Trump: Register to Vote Here."

Although the crowd numbered only around a hundred, a handful of TV news film crews recorded the proceedings, and on the margins people were busy with tablets trying out a new app that helps overseas Americans register for this November's US presidential elections.

Historically, only a small fraction Americans living abroad vote. Organizers at the charity organization that developed the app hope that they can increase the percentage this time around and perhaps sway the outcome of the election.

"We're very ambitious," Avaaz Campaign Director Meredith Alexander told DW. "There are 8 million Americans abroad, and in the last presidential election only 12 percent voted. Avaaz is looking to move that dial. We really want to see that percentage go up significantly."

Americans residing abroad tend to be far more left-wing than their compatriots back in the US. Citizens vote in their state of last residence, and the process of registering and obtaining an absentee ballot overseas can be long and confusing.

"I've lived abroad since the age of 16 - my entire voting life has been overseas," Alexander said. "So I know really well just how hard those forms are, and how frustrating it is to fill out complicated forms every election. You don't do it often enough for it to become familiar, but you have to do it regularly. I think we've created a tool that will make it a lot easier to vote from overseas, not just this year but for every election."

But the immediate emphasis is on 2016 and an election in which a small number of votes could potentially make a big difference.

Launch amerikanischer Wahl-App Berlin
Most US ex-pats would likely vote against TrumpImage: DW/J.Chase

A royal headache

In 2000, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore thanks to garnering a few hundred more votes in the state of Florida. Recent polls have put Hillary Clinton and Trump running nearly neck and neck in a dozen states, where the winner-takes-all principle applies.

Expat Elena Mailander, a 29-year-old IT specialist, is from Nevada, which is one of the so-called swing states. She thinks the new app could in fact make a difference.

"If it simplifies the process to register, that's going to be a huge step in getting more people abroad to vote," Mailander told DW. "So many people, I think, find it such a headache, even this year when it's really important. I know a lot of Americans who are really invested in this election but haven't bothered to register because the process is really difficult."

Even when expats have filled out the registration forms, it doesn't automatically mean a ballot is on its way.

"You have to be careful about putting in all the details," Mailander said. "If you do make a mistake and need to correct it, you can't always do it in time before the registration deadline."

Registration deadlines in some states are as early as October 8.

Launch amerikanischer Wahl-App Berlin
The Brandenburg Gate was once closed off by a wallImage: DW/J.Chase

A social network for expat voters

The Avaaz app not only optimizes registration forms for mobile phones, but reminds users about the all-important deadlines.

"Actually I intended to vote in the primaries but because of the different dates for absentee voters, I actually missed them, even though I am really active," 27-year-old Lea Morris from Oregon told DW. "So I'm being really careful this time to have all my ducks in a row before the election."

Morris used the new technology to register and has her forms printed out and ready to mail in. She gives the app high marks.

"It's really easy," Morris said. "I was able to do it with people taking my picture and the sun beating down."

The app is also synced up with a social media and email campaign allowing non-Americans to encourage their American friends to vote - it's been shared 110,000 times on Facebook.

"A lot of expats spend so much time trying to integrate into another country that, in a sense, we feel like we're not really American," said Morris, who's lived in Berlin for five months. "It's important to show people that their actions make a difference. I think that's coming to a head in this election. I think social media helps people get more engaged."

If the app does lead more than 12 percent of American expats to vote this November, it could hurt Trump far more than just tearing down a symbolic wall. That, as the thoroughly partisan Avaaz campaign organizers leave no doubt, is precisely their intention.