Those powerful expats

Amity Shlaes explores the impact the expatriate vote could have on Tuesday's US presidential poll.

Florida and California are two of the most tightly contested states in next week's super-tight presidential election, with both vice-president Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush spending maximum numbers of the crucial final hours traversing those states.

But the candidates' panicky peregrinations could be in vain. The outcomes in both states may already have been determined - in Tokyo, Toronto, and Costa Rica.

The reason for this is the US's obscure but powerful constituency, the Expat Bloc. More than 6m US citizens live overseas, a figure that puts the Expat Bloc's potential clout on a par with, say, the Commonwealth of Virginia. It means that the Expat Bloc is worth 10 Alaskas or Vermonts, and weighs more than 20-odd other low-population states.

When the races are close, as they are this year, the Expat Bloc can even be decisive. In 1996, expat votes put John Fox and Jack Metcalf, two 1996 Republican candidates for Congress, over the line in Pennsylvania and Washington states.

Back in 1988, as Republicans fondly recall, Connie Mack, the party's candidate for Senate in Florida, pulled the covers over his head on election night thinking he had lost, only to discover come sunny morning that expat votes had made him a victor. Democrats, for their part, say that their Loretta Sanchez of California ousted Republican Bob Dornan in a tight 1996 California congressional race because of the expat edge.

Precisely what percentage of the overseas 6m vote, how they vote, and what share they make up of all absentee voters isn't recorded. (There are also, of course, significant numbers of "domestic" absentee votes, cast by people who happen to be working or studying away from their home state during election season). Individual counties within states, which are responsible for registration, often don't break out or make public such differences. But some counties do collect ballots posted overseas in special piles, and the size of those piles indicates the expat votes make a difference.

It is also known that the expat vote is significant because one third of overseas Americans are in the armed forces, while members of the armed forces and their families register and vote far more dependably than their lackadaisical countrymen at home. This is due in part to prodding from Washington's Federal Voting Assistance Programme, which specifically targets servicemen and women overseas. Servicemen and women are also, quite simply, more patriotic.

So what about this year's race?

Thomas W. Fina, executive director of Democrats Abroad (www.democratsabroad.org) says Democrats stateside can expect strong support from fellow countrymen in Canada and Israel, as well as the UK and France. He notes that the Canada office of Democrats Abroad now counts 2,000 members, nearly treble the figure in the last presidential round, and adds that expats who live in Canada care a lot about defeating Mr Bush. This makes sense, since high-tax, big government Canada accords more with the Democratic vision of life than the Republican one.

Michael Jones, the executive director of Republicans Abroad (www.RepublicansAbroad.org), for his part, feels he can count on the military voters, more than 80 per cent of whom, he says, stand solidly in the GOP camp.

Mr Jones also notes that the demographic profile of US expats - wealthier and better educated than the average American - generally lines up with the Republican demographic at home. He reports that 40 per cent of Republicans Abroad registering this year have registered to vote in Florida (Florida residence being highly desirable because Florida demands no state income tax). This means the fixed income crowd sunning themselves in Costa Rica could represent an edge for Mr Bush in that key state.

Still, it's interesting to note that, when it comes to platforms, the Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad actually share some planks.

Both groups are hostile to US tax law, which, unlike that of other countries, requires expats to pay the tax man at home. In addition to fighting double taxation, the Abroad lobbies would also like more of the expats to be included in the US census.

Both causes are worthy ones, and our own web search suggest that the non-partisan URL "AmericanAbroad.org" is still available. Any takers?

© Copyright 2000 Financial Times

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To book Amity Shlaes for a speaking engagement, contact Jamie Brickhouse at the Red Brick Agency, 646.281.9041.
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