From Canada, France, Hungary and points across the globe — via email and the postal service — the ballots of American expatriates arrive daily at the Washoe County Registrar of Voters office.
This year, if Nevada is consistent with national trends, there will be more former Washoe County residents voting from abroad than ever before. Votefromabroad.org, a nonpartisan organization that helps voters request their absentee ballots, reported that its website is logging about three times the traffic than it did in 2016.
That year, 6,372 Nevadans voted from abroad, according to the Nevada Secretary of State’s office. Activists from both political parties expect a substantially increased turnout of expatriates in the 2020 election.
Casting a ballot from Budapest
“I wanted to come over and vote in person,” said Jeff Jowett, a former University of Nevada, Reno, professor who now lives in Budapest, Hungary. “(The trip) wouldn’t have been just to vote; I had some business there too.” The pandemic put a crimp in those plans, he said.
Jowett, who campaigned for Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election, said he would have liked to volunteer for the president’s 2020 reelection campaign. “Washoe County is really the pivotal county in a pivotal state,” he said. “It’s frustrating to me that I can’t be there and do voter outreach work and phone banks and all the other things that we do to get people get out and vote.”
Instead, Jowett filled out his mail-in ballot and sent it on a trek over the Atlantic and 2,000 miles across the U.S. to Reno. He received confirmation of its safe arrival last week. He said interest in the election isn’t just high among his fellow Americans abroad, but also among the citizens of the European counties that they live among.
Europeans interested in U.S. election
“COVID is the top news (in Hungry),” said Jowett, a lecturer and translator whose usual base of operations is in Germany. “But the U.S. election is on the front pages too, just not above the fold… The country that really pays attention to it is Germany, where we have a large American troop presence. It seems like the Germans are focused on it 24-7.”
He said pandemic news tops media reports, especially in light of the recent surge of case there, but Germans are following the U.S. election with “great interest.” The pandemic also interfered with his plans to attend a recent American election event in Heidelberg, he said. If he was back in Germany, he noted, he would probably be invited to deliver public talks about the U.S. presidential contest “every day of the week.”
Mimi Beck Knudsen, a former Reno resident who with her husband, Ken, has lived in southwestern France for the last eight years, said the French people she knows also have an intense interest in the American election.
“After COVID, the number one thing people talk to us about is the election and Trump,” she said. “Ever since Trump was elected people here have been very concerned. They ask ‘what were Americans thinking?’” She said that question also is frequently on the lips of people from other nations who live near her, including British subjects, South Africans and Canadians.
Democrats urge expats to vote
Knudsen, a Democrat, said she emailed her vote to Washoe County as soon as she got her absentee ballot, also via email. She voted for Joe Biden and Kamela Harris in the presidential contest. “I’ve been a Biden fan for many years, since heard him speak at UNR in 2008,” she said. “I liked him. I preferred Elizabeth Warren in the primary, but I’m not disappointed with him as a candidate. I think he’s the best candidate, not just to beat Trump, but to heal the country.”
She said she has voted using an absentee ballot since moving to France. Even if the election didn’t get so much attention there, she couldn’t have overlooked the contest. “The group, Democrats Abroad, do a lot of outreach and webinars to get out the vote,” she said. “They’ve always done that, but this year there seems to be more of an effort than I remember from four years ago.”
Jowett said the Republican ex-pat groups, such as Republicans Overseas, apparently aren’t pushing as hard. He’s seen a lot of activity from Democrats Abroad, which he said seems to be “a well-oiled machine,” but their GOP counterparts have taken more of an individual approach to getting out the vote.
Every vote counts in swing states
The relatively few ballots from overseas can make a big difference. There are about 5.5 million American citizens living fulltime in other nations across the globe and about three million are eligible to vote, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program. As the 2016 election results proved, a small number of votes in a swing state can decide a national election no matter which candidate wins the popular vote.
All 50 states allow Americans abroad to cast their ballots, but each state has its own procedures.
Briget Mutchler, a former Reno resident who has lived in Canada for the last nine years, said cast her first absentee ballot electronically in the 2012 election and had voted from afar ever since. Nevada, she said, makes that easy.
“I belong to the Americans Women’s Club of Southern Ontario,” Mutchler said. “A woman from Democrats Abroad spoke to our group and encouraged everyone to go to Votefromabroad.org to look up your state and link to your home county registrar.” She said in talking to the other members of the group, she discovered that some other states have more complicated procedures and some rely on paper ballots and the postal services alone.
Silver State embraced digital voting
“Nevada makes it so easy for you to get your ballot, vote and send it back electronically,” she said. “It’s great!”
Mutchler, Knudsen and their family members pre-ordered absentee ballots at the beginning of the year. They got their Washoe County ballots via email the first day they were available. They printed out the forms, filled them out and scanned them along with documents verifying their identities. They attached the ballots and the other forms their emails. Within hours, the registrar’s office in Reno confirmed that they were received.
The three overseas voters interviewed said it’s easy for them to follow the American election news where they now live.
They will be watching from afar
“We get American network TV in Canada,” Mutchler said. “CNN and Fox as well, so we see the campaign ads here… I find myself getting a lot of news from the BBC, but Canadian news also covers the American election.”
She said she’ll be tuning in on Tuesday. “Four years ago, we went to bed thinking one thing and awoke to find that something else happened,” Mutchler said. With so many mail-in votes to be counted this year, though, there may not be a clear winner declared late on election night.
Still, when the stateside polls close on Election Day, and Washoe County’s early tallies are announced, the three expatriates will be paying attention. All three had planned to visit the U.S. this fall, but the pandemic got in the way.
They couldn’t come home for the election, but at least they will know that their votes arrived and were counted.