It is difficult to write about the importance of how one votes without being accused of falling into partisan politics. This post will attempt to walk that thin line. SEAT is a non-partisan organization: While the commentary contained in this post might, in any given example, mention one party rather than another, the point being made applies equally to all parties, all candidates and all elected policymakers.
Every election season, policymakers, parties and candidates want overseas votes
The 2020 election season saw multiple efforts to get out the vote of Americans living overseas. While the Republican Party was active in this regard, the Democratic Party gave the impression of being especially active, with campaigns both by Democrats Abroad and by Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, being among the most visible examples. See here what Bruce Heyman had to say in September, 2020:
September 22, 2020: Ambassador Bruce Heyman explains how Canadian residents who are US citizens have the potential to influence the US election. https://t.co/wpAUlpRGdN
— SEATNow.org – Stop Extraterritorial American Tax (@SEATNow_org) June 13, 2021
In Toronto, Canada (and presumably other places) there were lawn signs and posters encouraging people to “Vote From Abroad.” Democrats Abroad created Vote From Abroad, which is described as a “Public Service provided by Democratic Party Committee Abroad (DemocratsAbroad.org)”. As both parties conducted their campaigns, there was no shortage in the media of commentary on the importance of the overseas vote and its ability to swing an election. The 2020 election saw a significant escalation of US political parties campaigning in Canada and other countries outside the United States. In the final analysis, Joe Biden was elected President. As the tweet below makes clear, Democrats Abroad attributes much of the 2020 election result to the importance of the overseas vote.
🇺🇸🌍 "You organized 200,000 people in 190 countries! You were the margin of victory in places like #Arizona and #Georgia…As I like to say, this ain't your grandmama's DNC. Democrats Abroad figures prominently in our plan." –#DNC Chair @harrisonjaime speaking to #DemsAbroad. pic.twitter.com/ltKWrsJRrN
— Democrats Abroad (@DemsAbroad) May 31, 2021
The lesson is this: At least the political parties now know/believe that the overseas vote can affect the result of elections. Therefore, the overseas vote should be taken very seriously!
But the appeals to overseas Americans to vote focused nearly exclusively on issues of principal concern for Americans living in the United States. Save for rare exceptions, the appeals failed to address the issues that affect the lives of Americans overseas most directly, namely (among other issues) the U.S. extraterritorial taxation system and the extraterritorial application of U.S. banking policies (FATCA). Explicit requests that overseas issues be addressed were ignored.
Neverthless, Americans living overseas turned out in numbers they had not before. Both Democrats Abroad and Republicans Overseas reported being innundated with requests from overseas Americans for assistance with voter registration and with casting their ballots. Democrats Abroad reported receiving three times the number of ballot requests it received in 2016, and Marc Zell of Republicans Overseas reported that he hadn’t slept in six weeks because of the need to address so many inquiries.
But in between elections, policymakers and elected representatives demonize and punish overseas Americans
What did Americans living overseas get for their efforts? Some might be tempted to respond “nothing” but the response is worse than that. For all the extraordinary efforts of both Republicans Overseas and Democrats Abroad to get out the overseas vote, and for all the efforts of Americans overseas themselves to vote, the response of U.S. policymakers after the 2020 elections has been to continue to demonize Americans living overseas. They then leverage this demonization to justify not only keeping in place the policies that punish overseas Americans so harshly but also to expand and strenghten the policies. For example, Senator Warren’s proposed wealth tax is expressly described as being reliant on citizenship taxation and FATCA for its effectiveness.
In sum, it is clear that parties, candidates and policy makers want only the votes of Overseas Americans. In 2008 they came for our votes. In 2009 the Obama IRS unleashed a campaign of aggression against Americans abroad. In 2010 they gave us FATCA. In 2012 they came for our votes. In 2015 they gave us passport revocation laws. In 2016 they came for our votes. In 2017 they gave us the transition tax and GILTI. In 2020 they came for our votes. In 2021 the Biden Treasury, the Senate Finance Committee and Senators Wyden, Brown, Warner and Warren are proposing legislation that would continue to use us as scapegoats and to punish us for the unforgivable “choice” of living outside the United States. It’s clear that the U.S. government and the political parties regard overseas Americans as (1) a source of votes and (2) an ATM machine to pay for other legislation. (Remember that FATCA was actually a revenue offset provision to pay for other legislation.)
Recent remarks by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) exemplify this. At a Senate Finance Committee hearing held on 11 May 2021, he stated in relation to FATCA: “it’s too bad we couldn’t put an extra ‘t’ on it. Then it would say “FAT CAT,” which would be such an appropriate acronym for it” (video of hearing here, at 1:53:18). With just these few words – an apparent attempt at humor – Whitehouse simultaneously both scorned Americans overseas as the butt of his joke and negated the serious consequences Americans overseas face as result of FATCA. Clearly, the votes of Americans living overseas were the furthest thing from his mind.
Overseas Americans must – MUST – show them they are capable of not voting for them
Whitehouse’s current term expires in 2024. If he runs for reelection, will overseas Americans from Rhode Island vote for him? More largely, in 2022, 2024, 2026 and all subsequent elections, will overseas Americans continue to vote for Congressional candidates who, at best, are indifferent to the concerns of Americans living overseas and who, at worst, are openly hostile to them?
Some overseas Americans may have the impression that they have no real choice. They may find the candidate(s) of the other party – whichever party that may be – so unpalatable that they feel they have no real option other than to vote for candidate(s) of the other party who either do not care about Americans living overseas or who are openly hostile to them. Or they may simply not vote at all. Overseas Americans are free to vote for any candidate that is on the ballot in the State where they vote. Some states allow for a candidate to be a “write in”. It is a mistake to think that when it comes to voting that the only choices are the Republican or Democratic parties. To think that the only options are Republicans or Democrats is to believe that they are helpless – that there is no candidate who looks out for them.
It is vital that Americans living overseas overcome this false sense of helplessness. The best explanation not only for why this is the case but also how it can be done is found in this 2006 video clip of political commentator Lawrence O’Donnell:
If you want to pull the major party that is closest to what you’re thinking, you must – YOU MUST – show them that you’re capable of not voting for them […] If you don’t show them you’re capable of not voting for them, they don’t have to listen to you. I promise you that. I worked within the Democratic Party. I didn’t listen or have to listen to anything on the Left while I was working in the Democratic Party, because the Left had nowhere to go.
In this clip O’Donnell specifically references the Democratic Party and voters on “the Left.” But the principle of his explanation holds true for any other voting context: Any voter, and, especially, any group of voters must be willing to walk away from candidates and from parties who are not willing to fight for the issues that are of most concern to those voters. Otherwise, those candidates have little reason to care about those voters, much less fight for their issues.
Important Biblical lesson for overseas voters
Matthew 7:6 states:
Do not give dogs what is holy; do not throw your pearls before swine. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.
The vote of every American living overseas is precious. To have value, it must be cast. So cast it for sure, but cast it wisely. Do not cast it before swine.
Vote only for candidates who demonstrate both an understanding the concerns of overseas Americans and the sincere intention and ability to address them. If there is no such candidate, take it upon yourself to educate the candidates. Educate them not only on the concerns of overseas Americans but also on the importance of the overseas vote. Most importantly, as O’Donnell stresses, make it clear that you are capable of NOT voting for them.