Opinion: Americans in Berlin have a chance to weigh in on midterm elections…but will they use it?

A post for Omnified by Jennifer Warburg

Jennifer Warburg is an American citizen living in Berlin. An expert in public policy and civic education, she is passionate about creating opportunities for people to become involved in the decisions that affect their lives. She has volunteered for 15 years with voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns and began her career staffing two U.S. senators.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the opinion of KCRW Berlin.

There’s something about this year’s elections that feels different.

Maybe it’s because for the first time in my life, I’ll be voting from abroad.

During the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency, I’ve gone from being a politically-active Californian to a resident of Berlin, seeking distance from American politics.

Or maybe it’s actually because the stakes feel so high.

From Berlin, I’ve watched as Trump’s attacks on the press have created a climate of confusion and division, which the president has reportedly acknowledged himself, is his aim. I’ve watched as Trump has alienated American allies, and as he’s withdrawn the United States from international commitments to security, climate action, trade and nuclear weapons containment.

While the U.S. presidency will not be on the ballot again until 2020, elections coming midway through a White House term are historically referenda on the president and the party in power.

Every member of the House of Representatives, a third of the U.S. Senate and 36 of 50 governors are up for election on Nov. 6.

The question is will Americans everywhere — including the millions of Americans living abroad — stand up and use their voice to vote?

“A greater sense of urgency”

Nearly six million Americans live overseas and about half are eligible to vote, according to the nonpartisan Federal Voting Assistance Program, but only 4 percent managed to successfully cast a ballot in the 2014 election, when data was last collected.

Both major American political parties’ international organizing arms, Democrats Abroad and Republicans Overseas, list local chapters in Berlin and the expats here may be considered a particularly engaged group, with dozens of active political organizations. And yet, American voter participation is just slightly higher from those living in Germany, according to FVAP. An estimated 7.5 percent of American citizens residing in Germany and eligible to vote in the U.S. did so successfully in 2014.

There are nearly 20,000 Americans of various political persuasions in Berlin, though it’s been estimated that the majority — Tagesspiegel jokingly presumed 98 percent — living in Germany’s capital are Democrats, or are liberal-leaning in their political affiliations. Americans in Berlin will regularly bring issues to the doorstep of the U.S. Embassy, from the March For Our Lives for gun control in March to the #WontBeErased rally for transgender rights this past weekend.

In reflecting on the upcoming elections, Adri Oldham, membership and volunteer coordinator for Democrats Abroad Germany, told me: “I feel a greater sense of urgency…in the past, I felt it was important to advocate around an issue, a law, or a problem, but I never felt like I was organizing or protesting in order to prevent our democracy from collapsing.”

Overcoming the challenges of absentee voting

A new challenge facing overseas voters this year is a surge in vigilance against foreign interference in American elections. With evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, states have been working to create barriers to meddling from overseas IP addresses. But attempts to secure elections could very well be blocking American voters requesting ballots from abroad.

This is a new challenge on top of a system that is already notoriously difficult to navigate. Hilary Bown, Vice Chair of Democrats Abroad Germany, has spent hundreds of hours this election cycle helping Americans work their way painstakingly through the process for registering, requesting, obtaining, filling out and returning their ballot from abroad.

Every state and territory has its own requirements and deadlines for each step of the multi-stage process. And then “there are the technical issues.” If there is one error along the way — a wrong fax number, mail snafus or slowdowns between continents, a signature that doesn’t match what is on file from your original registration in the state years before — the ballot could potentially be lost or discarded.

In the end what it amounts to is a whole lot of effort, time and money – and unpredictability.

“People get discouraged by the multiple steps and the disappointments and hurdles along the way,” Bown told me. The Americans in Berlin Facebook group is full of stories of people requesting ballots in March and receiving them in October, of mail returned because addresses were formatted for one country but not the other, and too often, of people giving up, confused.

Votefromabroad.org is a great resource to help navigate the process. It is straightforward, easy to use, and the website I used to generate my own ballot request.

Election results are not final until every absentee vote has been counted. Absentee ballots coming from overseas voters can be counted for days after Election Day, given that they need only be postmarked by the election date to be valid. (There is a common misconception that absentee ballots are only counted in the case of close races. In actuality, absentee ballots are always counted.)

What is more is that in the case of close races, absentee ballots can be decisive. The New York Times catalogued just a few of the races decided by absentee ballot in the last several election cycles: “Candidates whose victories came down to absentee ballots include Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire in 2016, Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina in 2016, former Senator Jim Webb of Virginia in 2006, President George W. Bush in 2000.”

Voter turnout will be key

Voter engagement has been on the rise since Trump took office — with more Americans turning out in the last two years’ special elections, primaries and for early voting. Will this surge in voter participation extend to those overseas? We still have a week to decide that.

The balance of power in America for these next two years will come down to a large number of very close races. This means the overall story of the midterm elections will be decided by narrow margins. Voter turnout will be key.

For those interested in transnationalism and our shared values of freedom as well as cooperating towards a better future, this is an important time to dig in and make the extra effort required to insure that your vote is counted. The national elections of the world’s big players have ripple effects — now more than ever in a globalized world with uncertain leadership.

If you are an American living abroad who has not yet voted absentee, instructions on filing an emergency ballot are available here. Make your voice count!