Vote From Abroad’s Bruce and Vicki Heyman on how every vote really does count
In what many have dubbed the most important presidential election ever, Americans across the globe are being asked by initiatives such as member-run Vote From Abroad to do one specific thing for their fellow citizens: vote
By Britt Julious Above image by Samuel Branch Monday 5 October, 2020 Long read
To vote is a simple request, but one that stems from sobering statistics. While approximately 6.5 million voting-age Americans live abroad and are eligible to vote where they last resided before moving abroad, less than a million returned their ballots in 2016. As elections across the United States have shown, only a handful of votes have the potential to sway local, state and federal elections from one candidate or initiative to another. But reaching those potential voters – many of whom have left the country for reasons as far-ranging as work and play – is far more difficult than it seems.
Bruce Heyman, former US Ambassador to Canada from 2014 to 2017, and Vicki Heyman are ambassadors for one key body tackling the issue, Vote From Abroad (votefromabroad.org). The initiative aims to help Americans living outside the US know they are eligible to vote, explain how to vote, and reiterate the importance of their vote.
As Vicki Heyman says, championing the initiative originated from the couple’s time living in Canada. During those years, the Heymans immersed themselves in the local Toronto arts and culture community, including joining Soho House Toronto. ‘In Canada, we connect[ed] with this idea that, oh my gosh, there are so many dual citizens – and American nationals –who are living in Canada and outside the country. And [we] got to know many of them,’ she says.
Upon returning to the United States in 2017 after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the couple realised they needed to engage in the 2018 election in a deeper way. Back in Canada to spread the word, the Heymans appeared on various television networks and in print media outlets to discuss the opportunity, rights and responsibilities of Americans living outside the US to participate in the 2018 election. In 2020, they hope to stretch their initiatives further with Vote From Abroad. ‘We feel that if we can double this number of voters or even triple it – you know, going from 7% to 20% – we could potentially have as many as a million new voters coming into the voting system in 2020,’ explains Heyman.
Most Americans residing outside the United States live in Canada, Mexico, and the UK. But there’s also a host of around a dozen countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean where the lion’s share of these Americans live. And while 6.5 million doesn’t seem like a large number, as Heyman reiterates, only a few thousand can make the difference in one state versus the next. In Canada, for example, there may be as many as 650,000 Americans eligible to vote. And of that number, roughly 5% voted. Many of those Americans abroad stem from neighbouring battleground states like Michigan, where there was an 11,000 vote differential in the 2016 election. ‘If just 11,000 of them had a former residence in Michigan – which is highly possible – and they voted, that’s the voter margin,’ says Heyman.
Vote From Abroad’s main goal is to demystify the registration and voting process for Americans living outside the country. ‘Some people don’t think their vote counts. Some think the process is confusing or difficult. Some wait too late to register or request a ballot. And often it’s a confusing process, because each state has its own set of voter registration and voting balloting laws,’ says Heyman. ‘So, our goal as champions of votefromabroad.org and the American voter abroad effort is to dispel the myths about voting.’
Many myths continue to linger among Americans abroad. Some think that because they’ve lived abroad for decades, they’re ineligible to vote. But they can still vote. Some think they need to own property in the United States to be eligible, but all citizens abroad need is their former address. And even if their former address no longer exists, they can still register. Even children of Americans who’ve never resided in the US are still eligible to vote in 37 states across the country. ‘It’s not only about voting yourself – it’s about doing it yourself and then tapping your friend on the shoulder. Or [telling] two or three other people you know who live abroad, who are Americans, and walking them through the process. [It’s about] conveying to them why it’s important, how it’s not difficult, and actually encouraging them to participate this year,’ says Heyman.
Rather than wade through outdated and often non-functional state websites searching for the proper ballot, votefromabroad.org provides a clean, simple, and easy-to-use destination for potential voters. After entering their former address, Americans abroad are asked to follow a series of prompts to request a ballot that can often be returned by email.
But American voters are on an accelerated timeline. Unlike homeland voters, many of whom are able to register to vote on the day of an election, voters from abroad typically receive their ballots 45 days before election day, so there’s ample time to return it. And while it’s tedious, voters abroad must register to vote every year and for every election cycle, rather than relying on their former registration. But in a time where the stakes are higher than ever, the effort is worth it. The lives of their fellow Americans may even depend on it.
‘We’re living in a global, interconnected world and the leadership of each nation affects the whole. These are extraordinarily challenging times and we cannot be spectators,’ says Heyman. ‘If you’re living outside the United States, what happens inside the United States will affect you and your neighbourhood around the world. As global citizens, we know that our environment, our families, our businesses and our health are all connected to what happens in this upcoming American election. Remember that your vote does count. And that your vote is your voice. You must use it now, because there’s never been a more critical time.’
If you are an eligible American voter living abroad, visit votefromabroad.org for instructions on voting in the 2020 election