Hunting for Republicans in Paris

Registering voters on the Champs Elysées.

Courtney Kolar, left, registers U.S. voters at Man Ray, a Paris nightclub
Courtney Kolar, left, registers U.S. voters at Man Ray, a Paris nightclub

While Americans who go abroad to kill people vote Republican, Americans who go abroad to do just about anything else vote Democratic. This is the logic behind the unprecedented effort to get out the vote among U.S. civilians overseas, and the reason that effort is overwhelmingly Democratic.

While campaigning overseas is partly a top-down enterprise, with John Kerry’s sister Diana Kerry criss-crossing the globe to rally the expatriated, it’s also a grass-roots effort, with U.S. citizens from the Middle East to Mexico throwing fund-raisers and registering their compatriots to vote.

Sheila Sarem, who works at a language school in Paris, falls into the second camp. In 2003, fresh out of the University of Denver, she knocked on doors for Howard Dean in her hometown, the affluent Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas. Plano is the sort of place, she said, where it’s considered something of a bummer to get a second-hand car for your 16th birthday. In 2000, Plano residents voted for Bush.

Now Sarem corrals anyone with an American accent in the streets and bars of Paris, where the turf is considerably easier. Americans with passports favor Kerry over Bush by 58 percent to 35 percent, according to a recent Zogby poll. That means anyone who has so much as spent a weekend in Cancún is probably a Democrat. As for the number of Americans who live overseas long-term and are eligible to vote, estimates vary wildly, but the New York Times put the figure at a conservative 4.4 million. Of those, about 500,000 are members of the military and their families. That group has typically voted Republican, with high turnout. The civilians abroad remain unsurveyed, but based on my own forays among Americans living in Canada and France, I’d say they swing heavily Democratic.

For Sarem and her colleagues, then, it’s just a matter of making sure all those expats vote, and she’s leaving as little as possible to chance. “Every single person that has registered in Paris knows about the backup ballot,” she said, referring to the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot, which can be used if the ballot from one’s home state doesn’t turn up.

Voting is harder than one might suppose. A citizen living abroad must request a ballot from his last county of residence, but the federal Web sites meant to ease this process are difficult to navigate and bogged down by overuse. States are then supposed to send out the ballots at least 45 days before the election, but many don’t follow this federal guideline. Washington, a swing state, doesn’t mail absentee ballots until Oct. 16, and the voter must return it postmarked by Nov. 2—manageable if you’re living in Canada, but dicey if you live in, say, Zimbabwe.

Diane Perro, left, and Dana Massarsky, Democrats in Paris, attend a voter registration drive
Diane Perro, left, and Dana Massarsky, Democrats in Paris, attend a voter registration drive

On a recent Wednesday night, I stopped by Man Ray, a nightclub just off the Champs Elysées that is co-owned by a U.S. expat, the actor Johnny Depp. Sarem, in a gold-spangled tank top, greeted guests with a big smile and bobbing black ringlets. Waiters circulated with trays of hors d’oeuvres and champagne as about 200 Americans packed in. The husky-voiced jazz singer, opium-den decor, and curlicues of cigarette smoke would have made an earlier generation of innocents abroad feel right at home.

Democrats register to vote at Man Ray, a Paris nightclub
Democrats register to vote at Man Ray

The politics, though, were up-to-the-minute. Party guests couldn’t get in without being asked if they were registered to vote. Anyone who answered “no” could expect to find herself within minutes on a cushioned banquette, wineglass in hand, filling out a form and learning about the backup ballot from Courtney Kolar. A Chicago photographer who has lived in Paris for 14 years, Kolar crouched next to a table strewn with champagne buckets to look up the addresses of county election offices. In her third U.S. election from abroad, she has seen a groundswell of overseas Americans looking to participate. “They really don’t like the direction in which the country is going,” she said.

Americans at home have called this election a crucial one. But it may be even more galvanizing for Americans overseas. After all, it’s the first presidential election since the Vietnam era that will turn on foreign policy, and those living abroad feel the impact of U.S. foreign policy every day. They see the antiwar protests. They watch news channels that don’t edit out the dead bodies. And they see a hatred for America on the rise.

“Americans abroad opposed the war in Iraq. This goes without saying,” said Connie Borde, a mother of six and the chairwoman of Democrats Abroad France. “The unilateral way in which it was conducted has made Americans abroad feel vulnerable, like we are hanging out here alone.”

Republican organizers have claimed, and several newspapers have dutifully reported, that they, too, are seeing an increase in overseas voter turnout, so I went looking for evidence. The Republicans Abroad Web site was a lost cause, a stark contrast to the Democrats Abroad site, which lists hundreds of activities in dozens of countries. In Paris alone, a Democrat can attend, in the next month, casual cafe meet-ups, elegant fund-raising dinners with guests-of-honor like author Diane Johnson (Le Divorce), a screening of Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, and after-midnight parties to watch the presidential debates live.

All I could find on the Republican site was an e-mail address for the chairman of Republicans in France, who didn’t reply to my missive. A call to someone listed as serving on the group’s executive committee also went unreturned.

The night after Man Ray, I went to an officially bipartisan event at the American University in Paris. About 150 Americans turned up to watch a panel of three journalists discuss the election. CNN’s Jim Bitterman kicked things off with an informal poll. First he asked how many people in the room were going to vote for Kerry, and virtually everyone raised a hand. Bitterman then asked who was voting for Bush, and four hands went up. He asked how many in the audience were Republicans voting for Kerry, and about five people raised hands.

George Yates, a rare Republican abroad
George Yates, a rare Republican abroad

Afterward, I spoke with one of the Bush supporters. George Yates is a member of the Republicans Abroad executive committee. A cheerful gray-haired lawyer in a navy blue suit, he could tell me of no upcoming campaign events. Even a Republican Party organizer I met, who resides in Western Europe, told me that this time around she may not vote for Bush.

What ordinary Americans living overseas want to get across is not simply that the United States is running out of allies. (If you counted allies based on majority opinion, rather than government policy, it would have almost none.) What they’re also trying to say is that this steady erosion matters. It matters on a practical level, of course, because the citizens of those nominal allies may throw out their pro-U.S. governments, as Spain did earlier this year before abruptly walking out of Iraq. But it also matters on a philosophical level: When you lead the most powerful country in the world, foreigners are to some extent your constituents, whether you like it or not.

Many Americans abroad hope that this election will turn the rising tide of anti-Americanism they cope with from day to day. “The world citizen has lost faith in the U.S. government,” Sarem said. “The only string of hope we have now is that they haven’t lost their faith in the American people.”