Lena Muldoon and Emily Pittman, two blonde, twenty-something, United States expatriates in Buenos Aires, Argentina, led a small but stalwart group of protesters. They marched through the late June mist that hung heavy in the air, carrying signs and shouting slogans until their voices cracked.
On this same weekend, throughout the United States and across the world from Amsterdam to Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro, protesters gathered to show their resistance to the policy of President Donald Trump’s administration of separating migrant children from their parents at the US-Mexico border.
This is representative of a broader phenomenon across the international United States expatriate community, a group that has seen a rise in activism since November 2016, when Trump was elected president. Expats as voters are often overlooked by the US government or politicians, but there are approximately eight million worldwide, and within the past 20 years, the expat vote has proven to make a difference in major US elections. This rise in activism could transfer to votes, which could, in turn, make a critical difference in future elections for the midterms this year or the 2020 presidential election.
Pittman organized the protest at the US Embassy in coordination with Muldoon, the vice-chair of the Argentina faction of Democrats Abroad. This issue hits close to home for Pittman — she’s originally from the border state of Texas, but moved to Argentina in March, one of the perks of having a virtual job teaching English to Chinese children.
“It’s very surreal to see small Texas border towns that I’ve passed through, as the subject of world news,” Pittman said. “To hear those towns being talked about by the [United Nations]. It’s pretty frustrating knowing that there’s not much I can do from abroad towards the situation other than organize protests in front of the embassy.”
And besides organizing this protest, Democrats Abroad has been particularly active in Buenos Aires ever since Muldoon restarted the group earlier this year, taking the remnants of the old organization and recruiting enough members until they were able to hold elections in May and become legitimately recognized by Democrats Abroad International.
“We’re all immigrants here,” said Muldoon of the protest in June. “It’s so much easier for us. We have so much privilege, and so we want to show solidarity from our position.”
The organization has arranged other protests in front of the Embassy (they demonstrated for gun control in March), it has monthly pizza and wine meetings and its members organize voter drives at popular expat destinations across town — a bagel shop selling authentic New York bagels, a chicken wing joint owned by two Americans.
Democrats Abroad as an organization has noticed an uptick in activism since 2016.
“I believe people realized that you cannot let others take care of democracy for you,” said Julia Bryan, the international chair of Democrats Abroad. “It’s a collaborative process and one that requires lots of voices to make sure it survives.”
Although there are fallacies in monitoring the number of American expats worldwide due to their transient natures, the generally accepted number is around 8 million, according to a report from the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. Of this number, around five million expats can vote, yet only 93,000 ballots from overseas citizens were received in 2014.
Many expat voters are from states like California or New York — which traditionally lean blue — but closely following are swing states like Florida and Ohio. Although the number of expat voters seems small, these votes have proven consequential in major elections.
In 2000, Florida ballots from overseas put George W. Bush in the lead for the presidential election against Al Gore. A few years later in 2006, Jim Webb took the victory in Virginia due to expat votes, which delivered the control of the senate to the Democrats. In 2008, the now-disgraced former Democratic senator of Minnesota, Al Franken, was elected with expat votes.
The data that the Rothermere American Institute found prior to the 2016 election suggested that expats are disproportionality Democrats.
“[Expats] tend to embrace internationalist policies, which places the protectionism and nationalism of the Trump administration in conflict with their interests,” said Jay Sexton, the former director of the Rothermere American Institute.
This has lead to a rise in Democratic activism abroad — from the protesters marching around the plaza in Buenos Aires led by Pittman and Muldoon to the anti-Trump demonstrators in international cities like Guadalajara and Sydney. Oftentimes, this activism is facilitated by partisan groups that operate overseas.
Democrats Abroad is a sophisticated international political organization, which is recognized as a state in the primary elections and sends a similar number of delegates to the Democratic National Convention as states like Wyoming or Alaska. The organization is made up of 45 country committees, and its 140,000 members live in over 190 countries. The organization has contact with hundreds of thousands more American voters who donate, protest and participate in Democrats Abroad events.
Political activism overseas isn’t limited to the Democrats. Conservatives have their own organization offering international political support — Republicans Overseas. This group is newer than Democrats Abroad — it was founded in 2013 (although its predecessor was formed in 1978) and unlike the Democrats, does not send delegates to the party’s national convention.
For both organizations, emphasis on voting from overseas is critical. In some places, the two groups even work together to promote their causes. In the Czech Republic, Bryan from Democrats Abroad works with the local Republicans Overseas committee on voter registration events with the US Embassy.
This is particularly useful because voting overseas is “not an obvious process,” according to Bryan. Some expats have difficulty receiving mail. Many states require that American voters abroad request their ballots every calendar year that they wish to vote. It’s the focus of political organizations abroad to ensure that expats keep track of deadlines and forms they need to send into the government.
But despite the difficulties, Democrats Abroad notes that during this midterm season, many more Americans living abroad are requesting ballots compared to previous years, which could foreshadow change come this year’s midterms and further down the road in 2020.
“We want to swing the majority in November,” said Muldoon. “We think it’s the most crucial election of our lifetime hands-down in terms of a threat to our democracy.”
This article has been updated to correct the number of active country committees.
Photos: Clara Wend McMichael