Oxford Researchers Suggest Expats Could Play Outsize Role In 2016 Presidential Vote
A report out of the United Kingdom’s Oxford University suggests that expatriate American voters—who normally turn out in numbers far lower than their counterparts back home—could play an outsize role in the 2016 presidential contest.
The report, by professors Jay Sexton and Patrick Andelic of the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford, says the rise of anti-establishment candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders has turned conventional political wisdom on its head this year and set the stage for an abnormally tight general contest in which overseas voters could play a significant role.
“Taken as a single entity, expatriate U.S. citizens constitute the thirteenth most populous U.S. state. Yet overseas voters exercise far less political power than they potentially could, given their numbers,” the authors write in America’s Overseas Voters: How They Could Decide the U.S. Presidency in 2016. “The strikingly low turnout among expatriates may reflect an assumption that their votes are unlikely to have a significant impact. However, expatriate voters have played a decisive role in the outcomes of past elections.”
The most famous example of that impact was in the 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when overseas ballots gave Bush a narrow 537 vote margin when the Florida recount was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Had the court not acted and the election been decided based on the ballots that had arrived by the Nov. 26 deadline, Al Gore would have won the state of Florida, and the presidential election, by 202 votes.
There are no reliable estimates on the number of Americans living abroad and retaining their right to vote, but the generally accepted figure is between 6 million and 8 million not counting active-duty military and other U.S. government employees resident abroad. Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom are the top three U.S. expat enclaves.
Those expatriates have been eligible to vote in U.S. federal elections since 1975, but turnout has historically been low. In the 2012 cycle, more than 876,000 ballots were sent to overseas voters (51% to military service members and about 389,000 ballots to “overseas civilians”). About 70% of those were returned, meaning a turnaround of only about 8% assuming that there are 5 million expatriates over age 18 and eligible to vote.
Of the two main U.S. political parties, the Democrats are better organized and institutionalized overseas than their Republican counterparts.
Democrats Abroad was founded in 1964 and has been formally recognized by the Democratic National Committee as the equivalent of a “state” (for primary voting purposes) since 1976. In this year’s contest, in early March, Bernie Sanders scored a big win over Hillary Clinton, taking 69% of the vote to her 31%. Nearly 35,000 Americans from 170 countries cast ballots in the Democrats’ primary.
Republicans Overseas, on the other hand, has no formal institutional relationship to the national Republican Party and has technically only existed since 2013, although its predecessor organization, Republicans Abroad, was founded in 1978.