Far From Home And Politically-Engaged

This article originally featured in the March 2020 issue of Connect.

Eric Gondree (Nagoya) and John Baumlin (Tokyo)

Regardless of where you’re from, it can be easy to forget about what’s going on back in your home country when starting a new life. Reading the news from afar can sometimes evoke feelings of remoteness, apathy or, even worse, powerlessness. Fortunately, living in Japan is full of opportunities for people who wish to become more politically engaged, and volunteer a bit of their time, skills and energy. The old saying “Think globally, act locally” may sound strange when living far away from your home soil, but it is possible to find or create local volunteer opportunities for international residents to make an impact on the community—and world—around them.

“My reaction to the 2016 election in the U.S.,” recalls Eric Gondree, an American living in Nagoya, “was that I needed to do something.” But what? After some research, he found that the 2016 overseas voter participation rate in Japan was only roughly 6 percent of eligible U.S. voters. That settled it quickly: He decided he would do what he could to increase the number of registered voters among U.S. citizens in Japan. Given the close election outcomes in the Midwestern states, Eric concluded that greater—and more global—overseas voter mobilization could make a crucial difference in tight elections.

After some investigation and leg-work, Eric soon discovered that he didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. American citizens are already organizing overseas, and even contribute to the selection of Presidential nominees. He soon endeavored to form a local chapter for Democrats Abroad Japan in Tokai, which seeks to improve political engagement among the estimated 8 million U.S. citizens living abroad. Democrats Abroad is the international arm of the Democratic party which organizes local events, shares ideas and even sends pledged delegates to the Democratic Party National Convention. “The opening three years of the Donald Trump administration have been a tumultuous and baffling experience for much of the world,” Eric recalled. “We want to be sure strong candidates are elected and that citizens are participating.”

Setting up a local chapter was fairly simple: After contacting the national organization for approval and guidance, he created a posting on Meetup.com. Within weeks, a number of politically-interested individuals began to show up for a monthly night out at a local pub. Democrats Abroad Japan has already established chapters in Kansai and Kanto. What started from a few people at a local bar in Shibuya has grown to over 3,100 members. The goal of the organization? In a single phrase: “Get Out The Vote (GOTV).” U.S. citizens over 18 are eligible to vote anywhere in the world for federal elections, but need to request their ballots. Since each state has different rules, the best way to do this is through the website Vote from Abroad which can help you navigate the process. Americans can use it to get a pre-filled form, sign it, and send it to their County Clerk to request a ballot. For most districts, ballots can be requested and sent via fax, email, or postal mail.

 

How to request an absentee ballot for U.S. Citizens

If you have any questions while filling out the form on VoteFromAbroad.org, click the orange chat button to send a question to the Voter Help Desk.

  1. Go to Vote from Abroad to complete the Ballot Request form (FPCA). With the FPCA, only one form submission is needed to cover all 2020 elections, including the November 3 general election!
  2. Choose to get your ballot by EMAIL or ONLINE to get it fastest.
  3. Follow the instructions to attach your signature online, or print out the completed form to sign it.
  4. Send the signed FPCA to your election official. Registered voters can EMAIL, FAX or MAIL the FPCA.
  5. After you send the form, be sure to contact your Local Election Official to verify they received it and will send a ballot to you. You can find contact information for your election official using the State Voting Guide on VoteFromAbroad.org or on the instructions printed with your completed form.
  6. You can expect to receive your ballot 45 days before the election. Send your FPCA as early as January, 2020 to get your ballots as soon as they are available. Mark your calendar: the November ballot will be sent to you by September 19.

 

Eric recounts, “Not long ago, I bumped into a traveler from New Zealand. We started chatting and he mentioned that he was born in the U.S. but moved to New Zealand as a child. He was surprised when I informed him that he was entitled to register as a U.S. voter. There are eligible voters out there who don’t even know it. There are American students living overseas who are turning 18 every year, too. They need to register to vote and request their ballot.”

A meeting of Democrats Abroad. Photo: Eric Gondree
A meeting of Democrats Abroad. Photo: Eric Gondree

Eric wanted to help create a chapter to organize people and let them know they can vote, even if they are residing in Japan. The chapter currently has a small number of regular attendees, but the local mailing list boasts over a hundred members and he aims to expand membership from 2020 onward.

A critical upcoming event in the 2020 Election cycle is the Democrats Abroad Primary, which runs from March 3-10. This will select delegates for the July Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee to help nominate the next Democratic presidential candidate. People who wish to participate in the overseas primary can join

Voting at a 2016 event. Photo: George Van Horn
Voting at a 2016 event. Photo: George Van Horn

Democrats Abroad, request a ballot and cast their primary vote all at once in a voting center that week.

Some overseas voters may feel that their votes won’t make a difference in the larger political process, but some recent races have been entirely decided by absentee ballots. March 2018’s special Congressional election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District was determined by only 627 absentee votes, for instance.

“Thanks to the spectacle of the electoral college, people are always thinking in terms of ‘blue states’ and ‘red states’,” commented John Baumlin, National Chair of Democrats Abroad Japan. “But the reality is, the House of Representatives is up for vote every two years, and they’re as competitive as ever. The voices of overseas voters are decisive in elections and nuanced in primaries. We bring some valuable input to the party and primaries, as we live out many policies that domestic voters do not have the opportunity to. It doesn’t matter where you’re from when it comes to issues like climate change or a free and open internet.”

“Being more involved is not only politics. I think the best part is the social aspect,” Eric asserts. “You get to meet people with similar—but definitely not always the same—world views and can exchange ideas. If you feel the need to widen the circle of people you know, creating a monthly meet-up group is a great way to meet people who reflect your values and learn a lot of new things. It’s helped me out a lot.”


With roughly 10 million Filipinos working overseas, the Philippines is among those countries that allow their expatriate citizens to vote in the national elections remotely. As a registered overseas voter who lives in Gifu City, I participated in the Midterm Elections last year by sending my accomplished ballot to our embassy in Tokyo. Although none of my candidates won, I still felt that I did the right thing by exercising my right to suffrage and fulfilling my duty even if I am away from home.

Since coming to Japan in 2018, the Philippines has had its fair share of injustice and repression. As someone who identifies as a left-leaning progressive, I have always found the need to keep myself updated of the sociopolitical dynamics in my country by following the national news from legitimate sources and engaging in political discussions both online and offline. Although I am not explicitly affected by these backward developments, I have always believed that it is my duty as a Filipino to express dissent against tyranny and bigotry by sharing my political posts and evidence-based arguments to my friends and to some extent, to my Japanese colleagues.

-Gelo Pascual, Gifu PA, Filipino progressive, global citizen, and avid traveler.-


This one goes out to all the Kiwis in Japan: register to vote! Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced earlier this year that our next general election will be held on Saturday 19 Sept. That gives all of us New Zealanders the chance to register or update our details in time to vote. You can check your details, update or enrol over at Vote NZ.

If you’ve been out of the country for a while and you’re unsure if you’re still eligible to vote, don’t worry! I got you. The basics are: you must be at least 18 years old, a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident and you must have lived in New Zealand for a minimum or 12 months continuously at some point in your life! There’s just one additional condition for those of us living overseas—you must have visited New Zealand within the last three years.

Tick all those boxes? Congrats! You’re eligible to exercise your democratic right to vote. As it stands at the time of writing, the main players are: current PM Jacinda Ardern with Labour, her coalition partner ol’ mate Winston Peters with NZ First, Green Party co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson, and Simon Bridges heading up the current coalition government’s main opposition, the National Party. Oh, and I guess ACT’s David Seymour is still around too.

If you’re looking for some more information on the ins and outs of the election process, head on over to Vote NZ. To make sure everyone is in the know, information is also offered in a variety of languages. These include but aren’t limited to: te reo Māori, gagana Sāmoa, traditional/simplified Chinese and even Nihongo.

From me and the Orange Guy, happy voting!

-CONNECT Copy Editor Damien Levi (Tokyo)


John A. Baumlin Jr., PMP was elected National Chair of Democrats Abroad Japan in 2019. He is a project manager by trade and web developer by hobby. He graduated from The College of New Jersey in 2012, and currently resides in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area.

Eric Gondree has taught in Japan for 15 years, including university-teaching in and around Kobe and Nagoya. He is originally from upstate New York and has an MBA and Masters in TESOL from the University at Buffalo.

Photo: Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash.com