Americans in Switzerland woke up on Wednesday morning to news that the GOP had taken back control of the US Senate, gaining a majority for the first time in eight years after grabbing Democratic seats in North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa, West Virginia, Arkansas, Montana and South Dakota. As of Thursday at 06h00, three seats are still undecided. The Republicans have therefore increased their majority in the House by 14 seats so far.
Many Swiss-based Americans participated in the election by submitting absentee ballots over the past few weeks. Non-residents vote in the US state where they last resided. Americans who were born overseas and have never lived in the USA vote based on their parents’ last US residence.
“It’s important to me to voice my position on political issues, even those that may not affect me directly as a non-resident,” says Eileen Weinberg, a Digital Strategist who has lived in Geneva for the past seven years and votes in New Jersey.
It’s become easier for Americans like Weinberg to register to vote and cast their ballots ever since the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act was passed in 2009. Voters no longer have to notarize their ballots and can access voter registration and absentee ballots online through sites like votefromabroad.org. Additionally, states make ballots available at least 45 days before the election and will accept Federal Write-In Absentee Ballots when a voter has not received his ballot.
History shows that the overseas vote can shape the results of US election. The most famous example is the 2000 presidential election, when Florida’s certified election results showed that Al Gore would have won the state — and thus the presidency— by 202 votes were it not for 2,490 overseas ballots counted after Election Day. Instead, George W. Bush won the presidency.
Less well-known is that overseas voters have tipped the elections in favor of the Democrats in three key Senate races since 2006. In both 2006 and 2008, Democratic control of the Senate came down in large part to votes coming from Americans living abroad.
Democrat Jim Webb beat incumbent Republican Senator George Allen in Virginia in 2006. Allen, behind by a margin of about 0.3% thanks in part to overseas voters, conceded the race two days after the polls closed. With all of the other Senate races already decided, the outcome in Virginia swung control of the Senate to the Democrats.
In 2008, Democrat Al Franken won the Minnesota Senate seat after a recount by 312 votes out of a total of 2.9 million. Again, overseas voters played a key role with over 8,000 civilian absentee ballots returned to the state. The same year, Alaska Senator Mark Begich defeated the Republican incumbent by 3,953 votes once absentee ballots were tallied. Prior to the absentee ballot count, Begich was trailing by over 3000 votes.
The number of Americans living overseas has increased by 60% over the past decade according to a 2013 Federal Voter Assistance Program study. Today, there are an estimated 4.5 million Americans live abroad. Focused outreach, electoral rules changes, and improvements in technology make it likely that the voices of overseas voters will remain important in years to come. This encourages more overseas Americans like Weinberg make the effort to make their voices heard. “In this interconnected world the outcome of every policy decision in the U.S. has a global ripple effect,” says Weinberg, “and that is why I want my vote to count.”
Edna Ayme is a writer and corporate communications specialist living in Geneva. She is a member of Democrats Abroad.