BlueWave Interview: Julia Bryan from Democrats Abroad on mobilizing the overseas vote

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Getting the 9 million Americans living overseas to take part in elections back home is the challenge that Julia Bryan, International Chair of Democrats Abroad, is tasked with. I was curious to learn how the attitudes of these expatriates have shifted since the last presidential election, and how she does the work of getting out the vote when these citizens are spread over nearly 60 countries. It turns out, we can help from the States!

Here is our interview:

How did you come to get involved with Democrats Abroad?

I started volunteering by helping with voter registration in 2004, and then later helped create a country committee in the Czech Republic. I was the first vice chair of the committee here, and then became the chair in August of 2012, right before the general election of 2012. That election was a fantastic experience for me as I had a few months to reach a lot of people and I really loved the challenge. The experience inspired me to really strategize about how best to reach out to Americans abroad – not only locally but around the world – and propelled me into working at the global level.

How long have you been working on voter mobilization?

I’ve been involved with voter registration since 2004, became a local leader for Democrats Abroad in 2009 and then got involved globally starting in 2013. I was a deputy regional vice chair for our EMEA region, then International Secretary, and Global Comms Chair. In 2017, I was elected International Chair of the organization.

I am curious, have you noticed any changes in how Americans living abroad feel about voting since Trump became President?

Overall, there’s a new energy, even among those who have never been active or who haven’t voted in a long time. It was a lot easier to be disengaged under Obama, to feel that the world was going in the right direction and didn’t need your individual push. Now it seems that no matter where we are, the current administration is impacting Americans, our families and businesses, and the way we’re perceived around the world. While this has launched an inspiring global wave of protests and activism, ultimately the most important act of resistance is in voting – something that Americans abroad are learning as much as our friends and families in the States. We’ve definitely seen a lot of questions recently from people looking for help requesting and receiving their ballots – people who have not voted in decades – and hopefully that’s a sign of really strong voter turnout this year as well.

Am I correct in saying that Americans living overseas got the right to vote in federal elections in 1975? Which “state” do they get to vote in, or do they have a narrower slice of offices they get to vote for?

The Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act of 1975 was signed into law on January 1976, so that’s when we were able to start voting absentee.  

Americans abroad vote in the U.S. state where they last resided, or, if they are first generation children of Americans abroad, where their parents last resided. That can get a bit tricky in some states, but requesting a ballot through federal overseas voting programs – like votefromabroad.org – helps make this easier.

Every American of voting age has the right to vote in Federal elections. A lot of Americans don’t know that this includes not just voting in Presidential elections but also voting for representatives to the U.S. House and Senate. Terms in the Senate are six years and terms in the House are two, which means that every American abroad can vote at least for their Rep this year, and one third of the country’s Senators will also be decided this year.

Voting in down-ballot elections (everything below President, Senate and the House) varies by state and can also depend on what type of overseas voter you are. The most common scenario is that Americans living abroad permanently are only able to vote in federal elections, and those living abroad temporarily are able to vote in all state and local elections, but this is definitely not a hard and fast rule.

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As the International Chair, what exactly do you do to mobilize the overseas vote?

I live in Prague but work with American leaders all across the world. Like the other state parties, Democrats Abroad has both “state-wide” leaders (in our case, world-wide) and local representation (for us, that means representation at the country and city level). I work with all of our global teams and regional leaders who cover our 45 country committees in the Asia Pacific, Americas, and Europe Middle East and Africa regions.

Besides management, I drive the strategy for the organization and also am very engaged in raising money for the work that we do. We are an all-volunteer organization, with no office or computer costs, so funds raised all go to our digital tools and voter outreach.

In election years like this one, most of the work we do everywhere is centered on mobilizing the overseas vote. At a global level, that’s about connecting with the DNC and state parties back home to help them reach their state voters overseas, and coordinating worldwide initiatives like digital outreach and connecting with study abroad programs.

There’s an incredible network of voter registration volunteers who work at regional, country and city levels around the world. Speaking to people in person in real life is incredibly impactful, and I need to make sure that these volunteer teams have the tools and resources they need to make that happen.

Has international turnout really only been at 4% for previous elections?

We suspect turnout is higher as many people go home to vote, or vote by regular absentee ballot rather than through the overseas absentee process. We try to encourage Americans abroad to vote via overseas absentee (by requesting their ballot through the Federal Postcard Application using a voter tool such as votefromabroad.org) because that process not only helps protect their vote federally, but it also simplifies the process for them. For example, you only have to request an overseas absentee ballot once a year to receive all ballots for the year (primaries and general elections, and any special elections), but requesting a general absentee ballot needs to be done for every election you want to vote in.

What do Americans living overseas need to be aware of when it comes to voting in federal elections?

They can vote, and those votes are counted and make a difference – but the time to act is now.

Every year we hear from people in November, and it’s really unfortunate to have to tell them that it’s too late to request their ballots. Over the coming months, each state has different deadlines for registering, requesting and returning ballots overseas. It’s not too difficult – again, tools like votefromabroad.org and our online helpdesk are there to make requesting a ballot as easy possible – but taking care of it now instead of later in the fall will make things a lot easier.

Voters also don’t think that their ballots are counted, but that’s not true! Every ballot will be counted if it arrives on time. That’s why close races like the recent special election in Ohio are considered “too close to call.” In the end, absentee ballots will decide the outcome for OH12. We expect MANY races will be closer this year than in years past, but even in races where it’s not close, each and every vote is counted.

Where can they go to get the specific deadlines and instructions for obtaining and submitting a ballot?

VoteFromAbroad.org offers all the tools and info that voters need to request their ballots from abroad. The website actually helps you fill out the overseas absentee ballot request form and provides instructions on how to send it in (different states have different requirements), and if there are questions along the way, there’s a helpdesk to provide guidance.

VotefromAbroad.org also has a directory by state to look up important details like deadlines, local election office contact info, eligibility requirements and more.

How do Democrats Abroad work with study-abroad students?

We work with study abroad students in several ways: we work locally in our country committees, sending volunteers to study abroad programs to help students register and request their ballots. We also reach out to study abroad students globally through advertisements that let them know how they can vote from abroad. And finally we engage with universities back in the States, and encourage them to let their study abroad students know how they can vote when they study abroad.

In case you need more detail: we have a global study abroad outreach team focused on helping our country committee leaders. They provide resources such as posters, stand up banners, sample messaging, program contact information etc to those leaders to make their volunteer work easier.

That’s good to know. On your website, I love the Tiny Actions section you have. It seems like such a great way to keep people engaged with their government back home. How else could people be involved with Democrats Abroad? 

We love our Tiny Actions too, thanks for noticing them! We also host thousands of events each year that Americans abroad can volunteer at and attend (https://www.democratsabroad.org/events), and each country committee has a list a mile long of volunteer get out the vote work they’d love help with – anyone interested should definitely get in touch with their local leaders. We also have global volunteer opportunities that we regularly advertise for here: https://www.democratsabroad.org/volunteer.

Do you have a favorite story about a success that you’ve had doing this work?

In the spring of 2016 we focused our efforts on making our global presidential primary as easy as possible for Americans to vote in as possible. We opened on the ground polling stations around the world, and organized huge media outreach, including digital ads, news stories and more. The result? We were the only state Democratic party who grew their primary numbers from 2008.

That’s fantastic! Is there anything else you’d like us to know about mobilizing the overseas vote?

Everyone can be an advocate for overseas voting! As you know, not everyone votes every year, and not everyone knows they even can vote. But something you may not know is that the more connections someone has to other Americans, and the more often they hear that Americans they know are voting, the more likely they are to vote.  That means that if you live overseas, we hope you won’t be shy in posting online or talking to colleagues and friends that you’ll be voting this year. Your posts will probably reach someone in the States who knows someone else overseas. Even talking about it with local friends is a good idea. You never know what they may tell their other American friends who say they’re not voting this year!

I’m delighted that those of us in the States can help raise awareness overseas. For our final question today, I’d like to know what inspires you to do this work?

I’m passionate about helping people vote and in protecting the democratic process. I also think it is really important to always be thinking about how we can help other Americans abroad activate the desire to do something about their world. So many people thank me for my work, and then worry about the state of the U.S., and my answer is that these are times when we cannot just rely on the passionate few to do the work but need everyone to pitch in and help get out the vote.

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