Expat Essentials

Expat Essentials: U.S. Vote Foundation makes overseas voting easy

(Editor’s note: Due to technical issues, we’re reposting this interview with the founder and president of the U.S. Vote Foundation as part of our research into overseas voting as an American expat. Voting is one of the most important civic duties one can perform for their country and is an important issue for Dispatches Europe.)

Susan Dzieduszyka-Suinat

Though you may be making the most of your expat life, you’re also a representative of your home nation.

Should your nation be the United States, then you’ve likely heard these questions from your new friends and co-workers, because let’s face it, Europeans always are perplexed by who we elect president no matter his/her party:

    • What is wrong with your president?
    • Why did your country vote him/her into office?
    • Will the United States come to its senses?

Being outside the American bubble gives you a greater perspective of the nation’s standing with the world and why it’s important to vote for candidates whose political agenda you support.

But you’re not in America. You’re in the Netherlands, in Portugal, in Germany or wherever. How are you going to vote for your candidate when you’re thousands of miles and an ocean away?

Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat knows how. Dzieduszyka-Suinat not only is an American expat — Munich, Germany is her current home — but she is the founder and president of the U.S. Vote Foundation, a non-partisan organization devoted to helping fellow American expats (like you) learn all about voting from abroad, as well as register to vote in your local, state and federal elections.

The organization was originally founded as the Overseas Vote Foundation in 2004, and it all began with the geopolitical environment shaped by then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s War On Terror following the 11 September 2001 attacks.

“It was a personal experience that inspired [the U.S. Vote Foundation],” said Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “It was 2004. I had two kids. I started looking at what was going on, and thought, ‘Hmm, maybe I should drum up some voices from overseas to go in and send our votes back home.”

Her background was not in “voting or elections,” but in software development, having begun her expat life with a software company, said Dzieduszycka-Suinat.

She had no experience in the electoral process beyond what every American already knows, so she started digging to find out how to go about voting abroad so that her fellow expats – then, now and in the future – could do the same:

I was handed a blurry, sepia-brown, almost illegible form and a 500-page instruction book to go with it. I really dove in and pretty much memorized the book, and I started doing events, taking my Sunday afternoons away from my family … and registering about 1.5 voters an hour. I was sitting there with a colleague of mine, and just said, ‘What’s wrong with us? What are we doing?’

Dzieduszycka-Suinat tried to find her answers online, only to turn up nothing. It was then she was inspired to start her organization, using her software development and marketing background and the knowledge gained from the doorstopper voting manual to fill the void.

“I made a pitch to the Democratic National Committee [in 2004],” said Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “I wanted to run [the program] as a non-partisan thing, and we did. The first pilot was called ‘Overseas Vote 2004,’ and I was sent to Washington, D.C., where I was given four days to work with a developer team to brief them on what they had to build … and they managed to put something together.”

The program was rolled out at the 2004 DNC Convention in Boston, Massachusetts, which was “really too late” to bring overseas voters aboard for the 2004 U.S. presidential election.

That said, the response blew the DNC away; they were expecting 500 registrations, yet received 64,000 registrations. Dzieduszycka-Suinat said this was the genesis of what would ultimately become the U.S. Vote Foundation.

Nearly 15 years later, the organization is, per Dzieduszycka-Suinat, “the only organization that ever focused on [the issue of overseas voting].” She adds that, through annual data gathering and research, the organization was able to effect laws related to overseas voting in U.S. elections, starting with the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act. The 2009 MOVE Act was a mandate for the modernization of overseas voting.

It requires individual states to make overseas voting as easy as voting in-person, from allowing voters to request electronic or paper ballots to requiring state governments to distribute ballots six weeks from any given primary or general election.

Despite improvements to the process through the use of modernization and technology, Dzieduszycka-Suinat says getting her fellow expats to register and to vote is as difficult as doing so is at home: “We fixed the process problem, but one thing I’ve learned in voting and elections and civic tech is that you can create all sorts of technology, but it doesn’t mean that people vote more.

“People vote for other reasons … we have the best thing going, but the least used. It’s absolutely tragic.”

According to Dzieduszycka-Suinat’s more recent research from the Federal Voting Assistance Program, a Pentagon-based agency in charge of the rules, regulations and implementation of overseas voting, only 4 percent of Americans living overseas voted in the most recent election as documented by the program:

That’s sad because there are millions of us [overseas], and lots and lots of elections turn on one vote. The overseas population could do a lot more, but there are many reasons people don’t vote. It’s not just apathy. They could maybe not have any idea what the process is. They don’t know that it’s easy. They dropped out. They stopped paying attention. Maybe they think they’re going to be pursued for taxes…

“Every time a voter gives up their voice, they give outside power to someone else to decide for them.”

Dzieduszycka-Suinat believes the current issues affecting the United States (and thus, the global community) today could bring more expats to the virtual ballot box.

“I do believe that from overseas, we see things differently,” she said. “Hopefully, people will be interested to get their voices heard. [The U.S. Vote Foundation knows] all of your state-by-state deadlines for when you need to file your ballot request. It’s one form. It’s easy to do, but that’s the date to care about.”

For more information about overseas voting, as well as to register to vote, visit www.usvotefoundation.org.

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