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U.S. Overseas Voters Feel Urgency To Cast Their Ballots This Year

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There are millions of Americans living abroad. Very few of them vote in a typical election year. In the last presidential election, only 7% of the nearly 3 million eligible overseas voters cast ballots. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, this time could be very different.

ALIZA BLACHMAN O'KEEFFE: Hello. Could I speak with Lori, please? My name is Aliza. I'm with the All In for South Carolina campaign to elect Democrats on the ballot.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Aliza Blachman O'Keeffe is making campaign calls from her home in London. The longtime overseas resident has always voted in her home state, but she says other Americans in Britain aren't as involved until this year. Blachman O'Keeffe thinks the explosion of interest in voting is mostly due to President Trump.

BLACHMAN O'KEEFFE: I think now there's an awareness that he's dangerous because things that the U.S. does has an impact on the rest of the world. And people who maybe didn't think they were interested in politics now realize that it's life or death.

BEARDSLEY: Across the English Channel, Randy Yaloz is president of Republicans Overseas France. He says the French are typically more welcoming to Democrats.

RANDY YALOZ: Trump unfortunately is given a bad portrayal here by the press. There's a one-voice narrative in France, and being anti-Trump is part of that narrative.

BEARDSLEY: But Yaloz says the constant attacks on Trump have given Republicans in France more energy and incentive to register and vote for their candidate. The average overseas voter is 46 and highly educated. Nearly half of Americans abroad hold a graduate or professional degree. Paris attorney Joseph Smallhoover has his theory about why they tend not to vote.

JOSEPH SMALLHOOVER: It's a very complicated process because most people, first of all, don't know that they can vote. And also, a lot of folks are afraid of voting because they're unsure how that's going to play into their personal situation or their tax situation or so forth.

BEARDSLEY: And Smallhoover says voting from abroad has seemed even more complicated this year thanks to COVID-19 and U.S. postal problems. Tony Rodriguez is chairman of Republicans Overseas in Thailand. Speaking from the street in Bangkok, Rodriguez says in many places, you can't rely on the local mail.

TONY RODRIGUEZ: Here in Thailand, we're having huge protests every night now. You know, it affects the services. They're shutting down subways - definitely affects the mail. So, you know, when you're overseas, it's not like going to America and just putting it in a postbox or, you know, going down to a local polling booth.

BEARDSLEY: Rodriguez says Americans in Thailand sent their ballots using the embassy's diplomatic pouch, and some private carriers gave special rates for American voters. Bruce Heyman is the former U.S. ambassador to Canada. He says there's a realization this year that the overseas vote could actually play a role, especially in swing states.

BRUCE HEYMAN: And no presidential campaign up to this point has ever focused on the American voter abroad effort. They've done it for raising money. They'd fly to Paris and London, et cetera, and do fundraising. It just - it seemed too daunting, and they didn't even know how to implement it. And it seemed too expensive.

BEARDSLEY: Heyman says there's been a bipartisan effort to enlist stars on social media to encourage overseas voting, like "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (Singing) Democracy is our business. Can't you sit at home and leave it to the special interests?

Many Americans living abroad don't realize they can vote. But you can, and you must because your vote matters to us here at home.

BEARDSLEY: Ambassador Heyman says nearly 50% of overseas voters are from battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania. He thinks this year their ballots could make the difference.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS SONG, "THE FEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.