Compared with the 30,000 or so British Citizens resident overseas who are registered to vote, the Overseas Vote Foundation has estimated a voter turnout figure of some 240,000 – 280,000 for civilian Americans living overseas.
Both countries have roughly the same civilian populations living overseas but, taken as a whole, the US with 5 times the total population of the UK is not so different in suffering similar low turnout.
In the UK case, perhaps British citizens overseas are particularly politically-unmotivated, worried about the tax implications or put off by the sheer bureaucracy involved in even registering, as well as the unrealistically short electoral timescale allowed in which to actually vote. The government has already recognised to some degree the problems by planning to increase the electoral period from 17 to 25 days (versus 45 days for the US). However, it still has no immediate plans to change the 15-year-limit on the voter rights of British citizens resident overseas, which acts as an artificial barrier to even the most politically-motivated of would-be voters.
Comparing this situation with that of the US, which has an upcoming presidentual election, voting from overseas has seemingly never been easier. A full 23 states (almost 50%) allow registered voters to scan and send official ballots via e-mail. Developed by the Overseas Vote Foundation, Okaloosa County even has a “Military & Overseas Voting Services” App for both iPhones & iPads to provide easy access to its registration & ballot request system. That is not to say that many Americans overseas do not have the same problems as British citizens overseas in ensuring that their ballot papers are returned on time, having problems with the registration process and never receiving the ballot papers even after registering. Therefore, despite the most aggressive, media-savvy & money-driven campaigning techniques in the world, energising the thin segment of politically-motivated Americans overseas is not easy.
The 6 – 7% of Americans who voted for the president from overseas in 2008, were outperformed by low-turnout demographics back home. In comparison, 49% of 18 – 24 -year-olds voted, as did 39% of eligible voters without a high school diploma. Where the system falls down is that Americans (in common with Britons overseas) are a poorly researched and largely opaque segment that give the impression they can hardly be bothered to vote.
Even more significantly for the American system, they are also not particularly generous with campaign donations, contributing a mere 0.08% of the combined US$1.3 billion collected by both the Democrate & Republican presidential campaigns. Indeed, both candidates can collect more from a single fundraising table in Florida or New York than from Americans living in Asia.
It is then not so surprising that presidential campaign researchers have wasted so little time (and money) studying their voting habits. Even the number of civilian Americans living abroad is debated, with the not-for-profit American Citizens Abroad counting 5.2 million, some 1 million less than the US State Department’s estimate.
The UK government and the major political parties have as little knowledge of the voting potential of British citizens overseas, which is why low turnout should not be used as an excuse to continue to deny them their voting rights after 15 years.
If you believe you can still vote but have still to register, you can find out more via the Electoral Commission on www.aboutmyvote.co.uk.